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The Devil's Advocate

by Robert L. Waring (November 1997)

Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a lawyer-film-reviewer’s dream. The Devil’s Advocate is such a film. As a lawyer-film-reviewer, my focus is usually on how a film may shape non-lawyers’ perceptions of law, the legal system and lawyers. In this case, it is obvious that the screen writers and director hate lawyers. So does much of the American public. (I do not recommend this as a first date movie for a lawyer and a non-lawyer.) Even though the message of the film seems to be that our society would be better off if more lawyers took a bullet in the head, another lawyer-bashing movie is not going to do much more damage to the tarnished image of the bar at this point. What I found more interesting about The Devil’s Advocate is that it seemed to be speaking directly to the legal profession more pointedly that the usual anti-lawyer movie.

The film, a modern morality play, is full of surprises, highly entertaining and probably destined to become a classic—at law schools, at any rate. Although borrowing much from the horror genre (Director Taylor Hackford also directed Dolores Claiborne.), the plot seems most inspired by John Grisham’s The Firm. A young hotshot, played by Keanu Reeves, is recruited by a big law firm and lured into its web of mendacity. His beautiful wife, played by Charlize Theron, is at first seduced by their new affluence, but soon feels betrayed by her husband’s all-consuming career. Anyone whose marriage has been damaged or destroyed by a legal career will find the wife’s increasing distress painful to watch. (Theron is a terrific actress.) This film should be shown to all first year law students for this reason alone. It might save or prevent a few marriages.

The hotshot’s boss, John Milton (an obvious nod to Renaissance author Milton’s Paradise Lost), played by Al Pacino, is the devil. Some his best lines, and he has plenty, are near the end. When asked why he has chosen to do his Satanic work by working as a lawyer, he shouts, "because it is the ultimate backstage pass. It’s the new priesthood." He claims that as the devil (read lawyer), he owns what passes for the conscience of the Twentieth Century, a time ruled by greed and amorality. And lawyers, with their enormous egos, he opines, are center stage, now a part of every evil endeavor on the planet. He does have a point.

But the devil is saying more than just that lawyers are a part of the greed. The message, reinforced by the film’s final plot twist, is that the ultimate backstage pass is ultimately corrupting. Even the hotshot, who throughout most of the movie appears to have a reasonably functional moral compass, turns out to have been engaging in a pattern of conduct that would subject him to disbarment were it to be discovered. The business of lawyering offers a wealth of immoral temptations that too many lawyers seem unable to resist. That is what the profession needs to hear and correct, or at least monitor more closely.

Viewing The Devil’s Advocate should probably be a continuing education requirement for lawyers, especially if it were coupled with a requirement that each attorney watch the film with non-lawyers and listen to their comments afterwards. This ought to be worth something for CLE ethics credit. I saw the film in a crowded theater in San Francisco that I sensed was comprised of a disproportionately high percentage of law students and lawyers. I heard scattered nervous laughter and could feel the audience’s embarrassment at some of the scenes and even bits of background dialog that hit too close to home.

My major problem with the film is its portrayal of the role of a criminal defense lawyer. The film judges the Reeves character harshly for applying his skill to gain the acquittal of a child molester he strongly suspected was guilty. In this post-OJ world of juror nullification, The Devil’s Advocate seems to respond by calling for attorney nullification—take a dive if you think your client is guilty. That is not the path towards reforming the profession.

In part because the hotshot here is a subspecies, a former prosecutor who defected to the other side, he is depicted as having enormous crises of conscience upon discovering that his clients may be guilty. I am not sure what the public expects, but somehow a vision of an ethical profession in which criminal defense lawyers can vigorously defend their clients, guilty or not, must be able to co-exist with a world where raping and pillaging by the civil bar is not tolerated.

The setting for most of the devil’s law firm’s evil endeavors is arms smuggling and international finance. This global wrong-doing is presented together with the firm’s one-lawyer criminal defense practice as if the same set of issues were involved. There is a vast difference between advocacy intended to prevent the state from depriving a person of liberty based on past actions versus advocacy which fosters an ongoing pattern of injury and economic exploitation. The danger of such mixing can be seen in Texas, where the rights of murderers are held in such poor regard that nearly all large and medium-sized law firms in the state refuse to take capital appeals in part out of fear that such an affiliation would hurt the rest of their business. If public tolerance of lawyers is this fragile, the solution lies in raising the conduct of the profession in general, not in lopping off some of the less politically acceptable public service work performed by lawyers.

The profession needs to clean up its act, but if public anger over this translates into reduced advocacy for indigent criminal defendants (as it has already translated into reduced rights), we are all in trouble.

Click here for commentarySteve Greenfield & Guy Osborn comment on The Devil's Advocate.

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The Devil’s Advocate studio web site includes many quotations from Dante's Inferno and a link to an online copy of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

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