|SILVER SCREEN FEATURE ARTICLE|
A Civil Action - A Law Student's View
For many viewers I have spoken to, A Civil Action represents an honest, accurate description of a civil lawsuit. The movie depicted the massive amount of monies used for travel, fees and experts, the incredible number of hours Schlichtmann and the other partners put into trial preparation and discovery, and the tedious task of tracking down witnesses and taking depositions. For me, however, A Civil Action represented a negative portrayal of lawyers. It reinforced the already negative image society has of todays lawyers. Jan Schlichtmann appeared to care more about money and publicity than doing what was best for his clients.
| One of the moments that bothered me most was a scene towards the
beginning of the movie. In one of Jans first meetings with the Woburn clients, Anne
Anderson tells Jan that she and the rest of the families do not care about the money. They
only want an apology for what W. R. Grace and Beatrice Foods did to their children. Jan
states that the companies will be made to apologize with their money. Jan never explains
to Anderson that it is very unlikely, if not impossible, that W. R. Grace and Beatrice
Foods will apologize. If they did, both companies would be admitting liability that would
expose them to an outrageous number of lawsuits from anyone who had ever even driven
through the small town of Woburn and stopped long enough to have a drink of their water.
If you can, picture at least a hundred sharks swarming and feasting at the smell of even a
single drop of blood in the water. That would be the effect of a W. R. Grace and Beatrice
Foods apology. Jan should have told that to the families and explained that money is all they would be likely
to get from the companies. It was Jans responsibility as an attorney to explain that
the reason money would have to serve as an apology is because it would hurt the companies
to lose it. It would serve as a punishment. In addition, Jan should have explained that
Courts usually force the companies to pay for the cleanup and even if this Court would
not, someone would. Companies do not like to lose money and they like negative publicity
even less. It was Jans responsibility to tell the families that going after money
was the only way to make the companies realize that what they did was wrong and to ensure
that they would never repeat their behavior somewhere else. Without this explanation from
Jan, viewers are left to believe that Jan does not care what his clients want. It makes
Jan look greedy and Jans lawyering look unethical.
Jans ego gets in his way throughout the movie. It does not appear that Jan realizes that he is in over his head until the end of the movie when he and his partners find themselves sitting in what is left of their office. Only then does Jan finally realize that the secretary and staff are gone, most of the equipment and furnishings are gone, and the utilities have been disconnected. Throughout the movie, Jan repeatedly orders the firms accountant to get more money. Jan has always come through in the end and the Bank has never thought twice about loaning the firm as much money as it needed. Jan has always believed that the money would be there. It does not appear that the idea ever crosses Jans mind that the Bank would eventually turn him down for a loan. This makes Jan appear even more greedy and self-absorbed. The movie never shows Jan checking into the firms financial situation or his own. He does not even realize that his Porsche and condo were mortgaged. He is never shown questioning his behavior.
Two other things bother me. First, throughout the movie, Jan is inundated with settlement offers. Not only does he never once take an offer back to his clients, but he never seriously considers any of the offers. In fact, the movie never even shows Jan consulting with his partners. The one settlement negotiation Jan attended with his partners proves to be a disaster. Jan inflates the numbers to such an extent that not even his partners take him seriously. I believe that to be a violation of the ABA Ethical Code of Conduct. Second, Beatrice Foods attorney, Facher, played by Robert Duvall, tells Jan that he will never let the families of the dead children testify. Jan appears so self-absorbed that he never even questions what Facher is telling him. Jan never does any research to determine how Facher might plan to keep the families off the stand. Then, three months into the trial, Jan appears taken aback when he is called into Judge Skinners office because Facher is objecting to the families testimony. When Facher succeeds in keeping the families off the stand, the only excuse Jan finds is that Judge Skinner hates him. A good attorney would have anticipated and been prepared for Fachers move.
Some viewers I have spoken with seem to believe that Jan does an about-face or has an epiphany in the end. They believe this occurs when he sends his files and evidence on the Woburn case to the EPA. However, I do not believe that he ever regrets his behavior or actions. It appears to me that he sends the information to the EPA in a last-ditch effort to prove that he is right. Again, it is all about his ego and the publicity. Throughout the movie, Jan always knows he is right about the Woburn dumping but he just cannot get the information to prove it. When he finally does get the information, he does not have the money to do anything with it. So, there Jan sits, with the evidence he needs to prove he was right all along. Few other people believe that he is right and those who do are not speaking to him. He has to do something. Viewers see Jan struggling to determine what he should do. Then, he does it: he sends the evidence to the only people who can clear his name. He also includes a letter which some viewers believe is meant as an apology on his part. I believe it is Jans way of getting the attention of the EPA. Jans not stupid. The EPA is swamped with more cases than they have the manpower to investigate. This is simply Jans way of getting his case moved to the top of the EPA pile.
Jan Schlichtmann, as portrayed in A Civil Action, is not a good role model for what a lawyer should be.
More Sites of Interest
Official studio web site link A Civil Action
The Internet Movie Database Go...
Jan Schlichtmann, A Civil Action- meet the attorney that John Travolta recently portrayed. Hear about his story, his newest cases and his personal magazine
Beyond A Civil Action - Woburn case issues and answers from W.R. Grace and Company.
Scenes from the Making of "A Civil Action" - information and photographs on the making of the film.
A Civil Action - official site from Touchstone.
Civil Action, A (1998) - IMDb page.
Boston Magazine: A Civil Actor - John Travolta talks about his role as a controversial attorney in "A Civil Action."
Photo Gallery - of actors attending a Boston charity screening of locally filmed "A Civil Action."
Hollywood vs. the Truth - Walter Olson's opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal.
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