"First Thing, Let's
Kill All the Law Professors!"
by John Denvir
Reese Witherspoon"s new
comedy Legally Blonde responds to a tension which afflicts
many law students, but particularly female students. How can
one combine the attractive "soft" side of one's personality
with the "hard" edge necessary for professional success?
Legally Blonde claims the new woman can have it all, frilly
underwear, loving relationships, and professional success.
Elle Woods (Reese
Witherspoon) enters Harvard Law School with her "signature"
fashion color ("hot pink"), the love of her Barbie
doll sorority sisters, and boundless faith in human nature. Three
years later she emerges from Harvard Law School without losing
any of the above three, but also having attained the love and
respect of her classmates and a position in a prestigious law
Ms. Woods' victory requires the defeat of the Harvard Law School
system, which is symbolized by a certain Professor Callahan (Victor
Garber). The movie as a whole is a delightful diversion; the
character of Callahan gives it a special value for lawyers, law
students, and, yes, law professors.
Elle and Callahan exhibit diametrically opposed attitudes to
law and life. Elle sees the practice of law as a cooperative
enterprise between lawyer and client, based on mutual respect,
trust, and loyalty. Lawyers must be smart, but it's an intuitive
intelligence which counts most. Callahan, on the other hand,
sees law as a solo enterprise, fueled by competition, logic,
and ruthless pursuit of success. As he puts it, "You have
to know what you want and what to do to get it."
Late in the movie, one of Callahan's clients asks, "Why
is he such an ass?" Callahan's associate replies, "
He's one of the best lawyers in the State; of course, he's an
ass!" The audience understands completely. We expect successful
lawyers to be professional wizards and human disaster zones.
But why? We don't assume that famous artists or scientists are
asses. What is it that makes Professor Callahan so unappealing?
Actually, he probably started in high school as just a slightly
pudgy kid with bad skin and good grades. But then he became a
winner in a very strange system which affects the whole American
legal profession, most tellingly in the elite law schools and
corporate law firms. This system posits that the natural order
ordains that the vast majority of human beings are stupid, lazy,
and weak, but it does not decry this state of affairs. In fact,
it welcomes it since it permits room for a talented minority
to flourish. This talented two percent are intelligent, hardworking,
and ruthless in the pursuit of excellence as they perceive it.
And they usually perceive it in terms of winning. Law school
is not about learning how to represent clients effectively; it's
a competition to separate out the winners from the losers. Let
the games begin.! . .
I think that is what we so resent in Callahan; he sees his intellectual
ability not as a talent, like being able to shoot a basketball
or bake a pie, but as a sign of some elect cosmic status beyond
the reach of lesser mortals like Elle. Luckily, she knows better.
Is Callahan typical of law professors? Certainly not. First of
all, he's more successful. Other than the professors at elite
schools like NYU, Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA, most law professors
have no reason to think themselves winners in any cosmic contest.
And, or course, most of the professors at the elite schools are
also quite decent Joes and Janes on a personal basis. But I do
think they must recognize the fact that they are willing participants
in a very inhumane system. They have to decide if they are with
Elle or against her. As the saying goes, the trick is not just
to understand the world, but to change it.
Posted: August 31, 2001