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

John Denvir
John Denvir


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It's not happenstance that these pitiful characters are lawyers. It's how popular culture now pictures the profession.




My take

Fight lawyerpity

by John Denvir

I once feared that my greatest contribution to human knowledge would be the coining of the term "webitor." But now I think I am on to something much larger, the term 'lawyerpity" (the "l" is always in the lower case and the accent is on the second syllable). It denotes a feeling of relief that no matter how much a mess you have made of your life, at least no one can ever accuse you of being a lawyer.

In the old days, popular culture often admired lawyers and sometimes feared them. Once in a while, they were even objects of affection like good old Atticus Finch. But after a short transitory stage where lawyers were objects of contempt and ridicule, now we are seen as objects worthy of pity, and, worse yet, projects for redemption.

I think that future cultural historians will mark Liar, Liar as the first entry in the lawyerpity genre; Boston Legal and Courting Alex are two current examples. I myself was introduced to lawyerpity by the movie The Shaggy Dog, a story in which a lawyer has the good fortune to become a dog. Before his metamorphosis he was the perfect lawyerpity icon, the fool who thinks he's cool.

The Shaggy Dog begins with Assistant District Attorney Dave Douglas (Tim Allen of the sitcom Home Improvement) trying a big case he hopes will catapult him into the DA's job. The defendant is a high school teacher animal rights advocate who is accused of torching a drug company that uses animals for research purposes. The defendant is innocent, but neither that fact nor that the defendant is his teenage daughter's favorite teacher discourages Douglas from using the case to advance his career.

Lawyer Douglas is not a very sympathetic character. He ignores his wife and two kids and doesn't even like dogs. Then Douglas gets lucky. He is bitten by a dog and the canine DNA particles morph him into a shaggy sheepdog. It's in the canine state that he finds wisdom, realizing that his son should act in the school musical rather than attempt to play football like Dad did in high school and that his daughter is a courageous animal rights advocate, not a potential sex addict. He also realizes that he loves his wife. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? After clearing the innocent defendant of the crime and capturing the real villain (charmingly played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Douglas puts his career on hold and takes his family for a vacation in Hawaii. I warned you about the redemption thing.

The current The Shaggy Dog is a remake of a 1959 film of the same name In the earlier film, the father was a dog-hating mailman; now he's a lawyer. In Boston Legal, Denny Crane (William Shatner) is a Neanderthal trial lawyer who sexually propositions almost every woman he meets. In Courting Alex, Alex (Jenna Elfman) is a workaholic attorney who works in her Dad's firm where she is kept safe from personal happiness. The important fact to remember about lawyerpity products is that the lawyer is not merely the object of ridicule. He or she is also an opportunity for the audience to experience pity and compassion. Therefore, poor Denny is dying of Mad Cow Disease and manages to male bond with his law partner Alan Shore (James Spader); and we all hope that someday (maybe in season five) Alex will get it together to have a normal love life. But these warm feelings experienced by the audience carry a high price for members of the legal profession-lawyerpity.

It's not happenstance that these pitiful characters are lawyers. It's how popular culture now pictures the profession. Lawyers are focused on financial success and prestige in their professional life, but this apparent success is undercut by the fact that they are clueless in the realm of personal relationships where popular culture tells us true happiness resides. Yet redemption is possible, even for lawyers.

While redemption is tempting, I think the profession should reject it and fight back. What's so great about personal relationships anyhow? A Beemer will outlast your average relationship by a large margin. And there's no resale value in an old relationship anyway. Besides a lot of happy people are overweight; most of the other ones don't dress well. Who wants happiness when you can have success? Let's face it. Happiness is for losers. Lawyers rule! lawyerpity is libel. I say "Let's sue the bastards."

Posted April 12, 2006

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