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Popular culture always reflects the general attitudes of society, and the public's intense distaste for law firms is accurately reflected in film. Indeed, Changing Lanes is one of the most effective anti-big firm movie ever made.

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By Michael Asimow

In an observation that stuck with me, one of the Yippies (perhaps Jerry Rubin) remarked that the courts are the toilets of America. In the movies, big law firms are the toilets of the law. Changing Lanes is only the latest in a long line of movies that ascribe every sort of personal and professional evil to big firms and the lawyers that profit from them.

In a recent article, I discussed the history of law firms in the movies. Beginning with the small firms trashed in such films as Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, filmmakers have seldom deviated from portraying law firms as profoundly wicked. (Michael Asimow, Embodiment of Evil: Law Firms in the Movies, 48 UCLA Law Review 1339). Since The Verdict in 1982, a line of films including (but not limited to) The Firm, Philadelphia, Class Action, Regarding Henry, Liar Liar, The Rainmaker, From the Hip, A Civil Action, and Devil's Advocate represent law firms and big firm lawyers as personally repulsive, greedy, unethical, and utterly without any redeeming social value. Solo lawyers in the movies of the last two decades are pretty bad, but lawyers in law firms are truly the pits. (John Grisham's mega-best selling books make the same point--law firms are always arch-villains in Grisham's books).

The venomously negative portrayal of law firms in the movies is no accident. For more than thirty years, the Harris poll has sought information about the public approval of the leadership of various institutions. These polls show that the leadership of law firms is the most distrusted institution in America. They are at the very bottom of the list, easily topped by such normally suspect institutions as the leadership of labor unions, big business, the federal government, or the military. Indeed, Harris remarked that the 1997 numbers for law firms were the lowest number recorded for any institution over the thirty-year period of the poll. Popular culture always reflects the general attitudes of society, and the public's intense distaste for law firms is accurately reflected in film. Indeed, Changing Lanes is one of the most effective anti-big firm movie ever made.

In the film, Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a junior partner at a big Manhattan firm and son-in-law of senior partner Stephen Delano (Sydney Pollack). One morning, Banek has a minor traffic accident with Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson). Both men were rushing to court--Banek to litigate an issue critical to his law firm about a charitable trust, Gipson to represent himself in a child custody proceeding that threatens to strip him of joint custody of his kids.

Banek acts like a total jerk, leaving Gipson stranded on the highway, but Banek also accidentally drops a critical document that Gipson picks up. The accident has some very negative consequences for both men and it touches off a cycle of revenge moves by each of them that make the situation much worse. While this drama could have been trite, violent and wholly formulaic, in fact it isn't; the script and direction are excellent and the actors (particularly Pollack--who directed The Firm!) are outstanding. The film overall is quite good--which is why its portrayal of the law firm is so deadly.

What do we learn about law firms from this film? Well, first, both Banek and Delano are cheating on their wives. The wives know all about it but continue their marriages because they like the money and status. To get even with Gipson, who spitefully won't return the document, Banek hires a computer hacker to ruin Gipson's credit by entering a false bankruptcy onto the records. Later he visits the school where Gipson's children go and tells them that Gipson plans to kidnap his kids. That's the kind of people that work at big law firms. (Granted, Gipson is doing some pretty bad things to Banek too.)

The issue that Banek was litigating concerned a power of appointment issued by Dunn, a wealthy man who is now dead. The power stripped control over a large charitable trust (benefiting the children of New York) from its previous board of directors and transferred it to Delano's law firm. Dunn's granddaughter, on behalf of the prior board, is challenging the power of appointment. In fact, the power of appointment was procured by Banek when Dunn was clearly incompetent; Dunn had no idea what he was signing. Since then, Delano and his partners have looted millions of dollars from the trust. Banek lost the original power of appointment at the traffic accident and the judge makes it clear that without the original document, she will rule against Delano's firm.

Hey, no problem. After Delano finishes his temper tantrum, another partner suggests a way out. They can use Dunn's original signature from another document and submit a forged power of appointment to the court. When Banek balks at this, his wife pleads with him to go along with the fraud. She observes that their life style rests entirely on Banek's status at the firm, which will be severely jeopardized if the Dunn trust case is lost because of his carelessness. So, in short, we learn that big-firm lawyers cheat their way into power, enrich themselves by stealing money from kids, and engage in criminal forgery to cover up their wrongdoing. Their offices are gorgeously decorated, but they are deeply and irredeemably corrupt.

In a beautifully written scene near the end of the film, Banek interviews an idealistic young law school grad who wants to work for the firm. The applicant talks about the grandeur of the law. Banek hires the guy, but tells him that he'll be revising his opinion about the law pretty quickly. Maybe in about an hour. In another scene, Delano agrees that the firm makes money from stealing and fraud, but it also does pro bono work in death penalty cases; hopefully, he says, the good they do outweighs the bad. But we know it doesn't come close.

Changing Lanes is a much more effective hit piece against law firms than films like The Firm or The Devil's Advocate. The Firm involved an apparently respectable law firm that fronted for the Mafia and killed any lawyers who wanted to leave. In The Devil's Advocate, the managing partner of a big firm was Satan himself and the other lawyers were demons from hell. Liar Liar and From the Hip involved law firm partners that were clowns and buffoons. Nobody could take any of this seriously. But Changing Lanes seems very real when it describes law firm misdeeds; the great acting really puts the point across. The law office scenes resonate beautifully. I rank Changing Lanes right up there with David Mamet's brilliant script in The Verdict, in which Ed Concannon's firm resorts to every filthy trick in the book to derail Frank Galvin's medical malpractice suit. Concannon (James Mason) justifies it by saying that he gets paid all that money not to do his best, but to win.

We can always learn a lot about the public's attitudes and beliefs by studying popular culture. The public dislikes lawyers but it detests big law firms. Films like Changing Lanes accurately reflect that view and may well intensify it. Law firms have a long, long way to go to rebuild their image in the eyes of the public.

Posted: May 14, 2002

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