Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

John B. Owens is now with the U. S. Attorney's Office in LA. He published "Grisham's Legal Tales: A Moral Compass for the Young Lawyer,"
48 UCLA L Rev 1431 (2001) and "The Clerk, The Thief, His Life as a Baker: Ashton Embry and the Supreme Court Leak Scandal of 1919," 95 Northwestern Univ L Rev. 271 (2000).


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Paul Joseph
John Denvir
Michael Asimow
Carrie Menkel-Meadow
Paul Bergman
Taunya Lovell Banks
Lawrence Friedman
David Papke

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Legally Blonde is a very entertaining movie, but it held my attention so closely because it had the potential to tell my story at Stanford Law School.











This experience reminded me of how important it is to respect everyone, no matter who they appear to be.

Feature article

Just My Blonde Luck
by John Owens

What's the most intense movie you've ever seen? Taxi Driver? Raging Bull? Maybe Do The Right Thing or White Heat?

My choice? It's a no-brainer: Legally Blonde.

Legally Blonde? Isn't that the "cute" movie currently in theaters starring Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, the ultimately not-so-ditzy blonde sorority queen who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School? The classic Hollywood fish-out-of-water tale, right? You can imagine the pitch -- "It's Clueless meets The Paper Chase!"

Perhaps. But it has been lurking in my background for more than five years, and for one evening, it held me in the greatest suspense since Geraldo went looking for Al Capone's vault.

Why Legally Blonde? Well, what else is there to see this summer besides Shrek? (Not America's Sweethearts, trust me.) Legally Blonde is a very entertaining movie, but it held my attention so closely because it had the potential to tell my story at Stanford Law School.

No, I'm not blonde (at least not a chemically altered blonde). I'm not a sorority queen. And I don't think I'm ditzy. What I am is a classmate of Amanda Brown, the author of the book upon which the movie was based. You see, for years my classmates and I have heard rumors that Amanda was working on a tell-all about our class – One Elle, as the book was supposedly titled. Considering that Scott Turow and Edward Lazarus had little problem exposing the foibles of their legal classmates and co-workers, why couldn't Amanda do the same? Yet, when I checked bookstores for her work, I found nothing. It was as if the book never existed. I thought I was safe.

Boy was I wrong. Amanda's book has hit the electronic shelves as an e-book (available at http://www.1stbooks.com/), and soon will be available in bookstores. And it became a blockbuster movie -- something not even Turow or Lazarus can claim about their tell-alls.

Although the movie is set at Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School is clearly the true setting. An early orientation scene in which the law students introduce their degrees before introducing themselves comes straight from my orientation at Stanford, as do several of Elle's experiences with obnoxious law students.

But what about me? On the one hand, I really wanted someone to play me as the smart and dashing superstud law student that I've convinced myself that I was. On the other hand, I feared the embarrassing truth: that I was a law student who studied too much, and was at times so socially awkward that I left an answering machine message for one of Amanda's friends that made the famous answering machine message in Swingers look like a simple wrong number. Would it portray some of my greatest triumphs, such as posting "Happy 32nd Birthday, Dalila" flyers all over the law school, knowing full well that my friend Dalila was turning only 26? Or my greatest failures, such as telling one law firm partner during on-campus interviews that I was looking for a firm where I could work 9 to 5? (What was I thinking?)

It turns out that the movie was loosely based on Stanford, with no specific references to my classmates -- or, more important, to me. Apparently, the producers concluded that my classmates and I were too boring to justify two hours of celluloid.

But I was not off the hook yet -- there was Amanda's book. The book made me really nervous, as Amanda was its sole source, unsoiled by Hollywood's sausage factory. In large part, my fear was valid. Many of the book's characters are composites of several people, including my law school classmates. Crothers, Stanford's first-year student dorm, plays an early but important role in the book. And Stanford's sadistic policy of releasing first-year grades on Valentine's Day -- the Valentine's Day Massacre -- is accurately depicted.

As for me? I came away unscathed. Or did I? A character named Johnno appears sporadically throughout the book. Considering that Johnno sounds a lot like John Owens, I became suspicious. Amanda describes Johnno as a "square jawed, bright-eyed, athletic entertainment lawyer." I'll accept that description, even though the "athletic entertainment lawyer" might be a stretch. Yet the comparison ended once I read that Johnno had "a busier social life than most students, and to talk to him was to discover that he was not the brightest bulb on the tree." That is not true. I had a busier social life than all students, if you define social life as hangin' in the Law Review library with Turbo, my ultra-cool black-and-white Toshiba notebook computer.

Actually, I had no social life at Stanford, but more important to me, I'd like to think I was one of the brighter bulbs on the class of 1996 tree. Was Johnno Amanda's poetic-license revenge? If so, what did I do to anger Amanda? Or was this all merely a coincidence? There was only one way to find out: I went to the source, Amanda. She assured me that Johnno is based on several people, but not me.

Though I am relieved that I am not Johnno (or even part of Johnno), I'm also disappointed that I made such a minuscule impression on Amanda in law school. Few can say they were immortalized in a movie or book, and I missed my chance, though I'm sure several of my classmates would happily switch places with me.

Did I learn anything from this experience, other than a need to keep my vanity in check? This experience reminded me of how important it is to respect everyone, no matter who they appear to be. In Legally Blonde, Elle's classmates don't take her seriously until she wins the big trial. The lesson I learned from the movie and the book is not to wait until the big trial to treat someone well; start at the beginning. After all, that paralegal you've been tormenting might be the future law clerk deciding whether to grant your motion for an extension. Or even worse, she could be a screenwriter. And we all know how big-firm lawyers come off in movies.

Article previously published in Legal Times July 30, 2001 edition and reprinted with permission of Legal Times.

Posted September 14, 2001

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