who teaches constitutional law at USF Law School, is editor of
Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts, available at local bookstores
or through amazon.com.
... one student said she suddenly
so sure she wanted to be
a lawyer; it was all so "devious."
But maybe good lawyers have to
be a little schizophrenic. I see that as part of the nobility of the profession. The goal of the practice
of law should be to wield power
effectively towards the goal of justice.
- A Second Look
at Erin Brockovich
- by John Denvir
- Last month I was invited to talk at
an undergraduate pre-law class. I decided to show a series of
clips from "lawyer" films. After watching Howard Duff
browbeat a witness in Kramer v. Kramer and then James
Mason script a witness testimony in The Verdict, one student said she suddenly wasnt so
sure she wanted to be a lawyer; it was all so "devious."
I dont like to think of myself as being in the business
of discouraging applications to law school.
- That experience started me
thinking about "positive" images of lawyers available
in film. There arent many. Film often paints lawyers as
vultures or fools. Even a heroic lawyer like James Woods in True
Believer is shown to be an extremely neurotic, very incomplete
human being. I guess we can always fall back on Atticus Finch
in To Kill a Mockingbird, but thats long ago and
- I would like to suggest a
candidate for the model of a "good" lawyer, both in
the craft and personal sense--a lawyer who illustrates how nice,
fairly normal, people can use law to help reform "society"
and earn a decent living at the same time. My candidate is actually
a composite of two characters in Erin Brockovich, a fusion
of the strong points of both Erin herself (Julia Roberts) and
Ed Masry (Albert Finney ). Together, Erin and Ed ("Edrin")
make a great lawyer; but only together.
- Its easy to see Erins
virtues. She has the passion and anger at injustice necessary
to achieve results in a society stacked against the underdog.
But passion and anger are not enough to win, as her sorry job
history, until she works for Ed, demonstrates all too convincingly.
You also need judgment and discretion, qualities which her boss
Ed Masry was able to provide. He keeps bringing her back to reality,
reminding her that the practice of law in the long run cannot
just be a quest for justice; it must also provide a means of
earning a living. And its always a mistake to underestimate
your adversaries, especially when they have billions of dollars
in assets to use in their defense.
would be grossly unfair to conclude that passion is Erins
only asset. Despite her professed aversion for lawyers ("I
hate lawyers!"), for me she incarnates many of the skills
a lawyer needs to make a case go. As Erin tells us in the beginning
of the film, she is "good with people." Thats
a lawyerly skill just as important as legal research. Her ability
to relate to the clients pain sets up the dynamic which
allows the lawsuit against the giant utility to get off the ground.
Plus her subtle flirting with a young male clerk gains her the
access to evidence she needs to prove the case. She also finds
time to teach her elitist boss. When a client is nice enough
to bake a cake, you find time to eat it with them.
- Yet Masry has more virtues
than discretion and moderation. He shows an uncanny flair for
leadership which I (see my review of Election) define
as the ability to channel colleagues neuroses into productive
channels. Although other employers fired the hot-tempered Erin;
Masry gives her the space to become a star. Masry also has that
rare ability to know his own limitations; he admits the case
is too "big" for him, but then associates a lawyer
whose stature the utility will respect. Despite his genial elitism
towards clients, he does teach Erin few lessons about getting
along with colleagues.
- Some might find it disconcerting
that I feel it necessary pick a composite for my "compleat"
lawyer. But maybe good lawyers have to be a little schizophrenic.
I see that as part of the nobility of the profession. The goal
of the practice of law should be to wield power effectively towards
the goal of justice. To achieve that goal entails a mastery of
a wide variety of skills which require intelligence, sensitivity,
and courage. And while I hope that my film clips didnt
discourage my undergraduate interlocutor from applying to law
school, she will have to learn that the capacity to be a little
devious at times is one of those skills.
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