The Verdict: "They Pay Us To Win!"
by John Denvir, USF Law School (May 1998)
At first viewing, The Verdict does not appear to be a "law noir" since the main plot is revolves around the redemption of a hack lawyer. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) starts out the movie as a cynical alcoholic ambulance chaser whose life is turned around by a personal injury suit. He represents a young woman who is permanently comatose because a doctor gave her the wrong anesthesia. At first, Galvin is ready to accept the offer of a small settlement to avoid a trial against a big Boston defense firm, but he finally decides that he has to give his client her "day in court." A happy ending prevails.
If we look at The Verdict from the perspective of Galvins adversary Ed Concannon (James Mason) we see the genius of the screenwriter. David Mamet gives us one of the darkest visions of the large corporate American law firm ever portrayed on film. We first see Concannon as he addresses his "team" of more than a dozen young associates about the upcoming trial. The setting is a large conference room which seems to be a cross between a library in an old mansion, complete with ornate fire place and African-American retainer in a white jacket serving coffee, and a law school seminar room, complete with blackboard and the latest in audio visual technology. Concannon, dressed in a professorial cardigan sweater, makes some very small jokes to which the young associates respond with nervous titters. Its clear that they both respect and fear Concannon. And we soon see why as he outlines his plans to use every possible tool to zealously represent his client.
Our next view of Concannon shows him in the same conference room "prepping" one of the doctors for his testimony on direct examination. The examination takes place before the same group of young associates who now act as a mock jury. The doctor is rather pompous, much too taken with himself than is healthy for a man who has effectively ended a young mothers life.
Concannon methodically destroys him through ridicule so that he can rebuild him as a witness who will project the image Concannon needs to win. The "jury" is suitably impressed, but the viewer realizes that what the real jury will hear has less to do with what happened in the operating room that what Concannon scripted in his own head.
When I said that Concannon will use "every possible tool" to represent his client, I wasnt kidding. He has planted a spy in Galvins camp to keep him informed of the plaintiffs plans. For this role, he recruits an attractive woman associate (Charlotte Rampling) who is returning to the firm after a bad divorce. She proceeds to allow Gavin to pick her up in a bar and begins an affair to last the length of the trial. The movies most affecting scene comes when Rampling makes a late night visit to Concannons office to pick up her "blood money." In addition to a check placed in her handbag as if she were a "call girl," Concannon also gives her a little lecture on the economics of the large American law firm.
He recalls how as a young associate, his senior partner had asked him how he did on a case. To the young Concannons reply that he did the "best he could," the older lawyer replied: "Your best isnt good enough; were paid to win." Concannon now agrees that the older lawyer was right. Lawyers are paid to win. He goes on to add that it is "winning" which pays for all the "perks" of working in a large firm, not only the glitzy offices, but also the "pro bono" cases young associates are so proud of, and even the leisure for philosophical chats about "justice" which seem to raise the practice of law to more than a mercenary pursuit. He concludes: "You wanted to return to the world. Welcome back!"
Of course, The Verdict is a movie and Concannon an overdrawn character. Lawyers, even high-powered defense lawyers, dont hire femme fatales to infiltrate the adversarys camp. Still the Concannon character has the smell of truth about him. The queasy combination of aristocratic trimmings (the palatial conference room, the servant in livery) and high tone vocabulary are used to conceal a more base reality; its all about winning and winning is about money. In fact, that is the same taunt that Galvins working class clients throw at him. "Youre all the same. Its all about money!"
In some way the charge is unfair. If it is about money, it is so because the plaintiffs came to the lawyer to file a lawsuit to recover money. The lawyer is the vehicle, not the driver. And if lawyers earn fees, theres nothing shameful in that. Lawyers have to eat and pay mortgages like anyone else. Clearly they have a right to earn a decent livelihood.
But the charge against the legal profession still stings because under the Concannon theory, its "only about money." The talk about justice is just one more example of empty rhetoric. Thats the challenge The Verdict sets out to the profession. Laypeople want more law to be more than "only about money." Of course, so do most lawyers. The problem is how to transform a multi-billion dollar business back into a profession. Unfortunately, "noirs" only pose questions; they never provide solutions.