Lawyers We Love to Hate
by John Denvir
Most lawyers in movies and
television are portrayed as heroes. But not all film lawyers
are "good." And the lawyer villains are just as instructive
about popular conceptions of law and justice as their hero counterparts.
Often Hollywood shows us these legal villains as big firm lawyers
defending corporate interests. My two personal favorite "villain
" lawyers are Ed Concannon (James Mason) in The Verdict
and Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall) in A Civil Action.
Ed Concannon is Paul Newman's
nemesis in The Verdict. He defends the hospital owned
by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston where Newman's client
came to harm. Concannon is a "bad" lawyer only in a
moral sense. He is a superb legal technician with a keen insight
into human psychology. We are not surprised that he has risen
to the top of his profession in the tort defense bar.
We first see him meet a small
squadron of associates in a conference room in his law firm.
The room is part college seminar room complete with blackboard
and part Renaissance palace with ornate fireplace and a uniformed
butler serving coffee. This setting perfectly reflects the mixture
of intellect and privilege that the contemporary large American
law firm tries to project. And Concannon's message to his minions
is clear: the goal is to win and to win decisively. The fact
that the plaintiff is a young mother entombed in an iron lung
because of a medical foul-up at his client's hospital is no more
than an obstacle to victory that must be overcome
Later in the film we see how
victory is achieved. There is a skillful preparation for trial
testimony of the stuff shirt doctor in which Concannon first
destroys his client's story and then rebuilds it according to
a script that will appeal to the jury. We also seen him cleverly
discredit the plaintiff's expert witness and persuasively argue
arcane procedural points to keep out damaging evidence. His technical
performance is indeed superb. But Concannon goes even further,
inserting his own personal spy in the enemy camp to keep him
informed of the plaintiff's strategy. I assume this is an example
of art surpassing reality.
Screeenwriter David Mamet gives
us a riveting scene where Concannon articulates his philosophy
of law practice. It's all about winning because that's all that
clients pay for. And then he sets out the all the "perks"
that winning subsidizes. It's winning that pays for the fancy
office, the stylish clothes, the single malt whiskey, and even
the pro bono work the firm performs. Finally he puts in the dagger
to the liberal law professor's heart: winning even finances the
luxury of philosophical chats about the larger meaning of law.
Ed Concannon is corrupted by his love of wealth, but this vice
does not explain the professional actions of Jerome Facher, one
of the corporate defense lawyers in A Civil Action. Facher
has no special interest in money. Despite his partnership in
a blue blood Boston law firm, he wears inexpensive suits and
carries an well-worn brief case. No connoisseur of single malt
scotch, Facher seems happiest at a table in the firm's law library
eating homemade sandwiches and listening to a baseball game on
Facher just likes to win for the sport of it. He's the quintessential
legal craftsman, using all the technicalities of the law to protect
his client with scant thought about the justice of the result.
We have no doubt he would be no more or less interested and just
as effective if assigned the other side of the case. For Facher,
the game's the thing and winning is the game.
In A Civil Action Facher's
opponent in Jan Schlichtmann ( John Travolta), a flashy trial
lawyer who is attempting to sue two large corporations for the
deaths which have resulted from the pollution of drinking water
in a small Massachusetts town. Facher takes the depositions of
the plaintiffs who appear to be honest working people who have
been devastated by deaths caused by the poisoned water. The primary
lesson Facher draws from this encounter is that these witnesses
must never be allowed to testify before a jury. He then sells
the judge of a procedural plan that accomplishes exactly this
goal. The judge sends the technical question of negligence to
the jury before allowing the plaintiffs to testify to damages,
thereby insulating the jury from the real world effects of his
clients' actions heart-breaking stories. He's successful and
his client is exonerated. He's won the game.
Facher is the lawyer as brilliant cynic. When Schlichtmann tells
him the jury will find out the truth, he replies " The Truth?
I thought were talking about a court of law." For Facher,
law is a war with little connection to truth or justice.
While James Mason's Concannan is a wee bit pompous, Duvall's
Facher comes across as unassuming and almost likeable. He announces
at one settlement conference that he has just been given a Chair
at Harvard Law School, only to explain that the "chair"
is made of wood and is a gift from students in his trial practice
course. At Harvard he teaches not the grand principles of legal
theory but the legal craftsman's skills of quietly disrupting
an opponent's case. Facher is what we sometimes call a "lawyer's
lawyer," a fact which should give all members of the profession
Of course, as always, we must remember that Hollywood is making
entertainments, not giving us a realistic picture of how large
firm lawyers actually conduct their practices. Still I believe
the hero/villain manner of portraying lawyers in movies corresponds
at some level with a human need to see justice done. Furthermore,
I think these movies are evidence that (also a some emotional
level) movie audiences don't think justice is always the most
obvious product of the American legal system..
While the Hollywood version of legal reality is clearly unrealistic,
it may provide an important antidote to the law school version
which seems to flatten the moral universe of most students, convincing
them that just because real world disputes are complicated, there
are no "right" and "wrong" sides. All lawyers
are technicians. Lawyers defending tobacco companies and lawyers
defending the homeless are on a moral par, some just better paid
than others. Movies force us to confront the view that good and
evil do exist and all lawyers must ask themselves "Which
side are you on?"
Posted May 8, 2003