by John Denvir
The Coen brothers have created
another entry in the Hollywood Sleazy Lawyers Hall of Fame. His
name is Freddie Reidenschnieder (Tony Shaloub) and he proudly
stands against almost every ethical precept the legal profession
cherishes. He's avaricious, has little respect for facts, and
thinks his client's guilt or innocence irrelevant. The audience
loves him-and so do lawyers.
the general public should enjoy Freddie is no surprise, since
we are told that the public dislikes lawyers. But that lawyers
also should find Freddie somehow attractive is more surprising.
Yet no less an authority than PJ's own Michael Asimow refers
to Freddie as a "loveable sleaze." Why might that be?
First, I think Freddie catches a truth about the self-image of
lawyers, which is often ignored. Good lawyers know that they
aren't selfless pilgrims on a quest for objective truth; they
know themselves to be Tricksters, putting out whatever version
of the truth that best serves their clients' interests. Freddie
says out loud what the profession only admits by indirection-the
spin is the thing. Therefore, "truth" is always a product
to be constructed, not a fact to be discovered. Even the facts
Law schools tell us that law
requires certainty, but lawyers know that the practice of law
thrives on uncertainty. Lawyers revel in ambiguity because it
gives license to their creativity. Old Christopher Columbus Langdell
tried to convince us that law is a science with its own rigorous
methodology. Freddie knows it's a narrative art, more like that
of a screenwriter than a natural scientist.
Another reason lawyers might
admire Freddie is that he's having such a good time practicing
his profession. He knows he's a performer and he can't wait for
show time. For him law is more an aesthetic endeavor than a moral
or ethical one. Regardless of the innocence or guilt of the defendant,
it's the performance that counts. From an aesthetic viewpoint,
there's greater joy in freeing a guilty man than an innocent
one. Anyone can do the latter, but getting a "not guilty"
for a guilty client is law's version of a 360-degree under-the-basket
The third reason why lawyers
love Freddie is because they know he's really only a fictional
character; he doesn't exist is real life. Little of what is really
important in law takes place in the courtroom before the jury.
Most law, including criminal trials, is one long negotiation
that seldom ends up before the jury. And even the mythical Freddie-like
performance of O.J. Simpson's dream team turns out in reality
to have more to do with the fact-driven science of jury selection
than high flights of rhetoric. Most lawyers, good lawyers, spend
their days ferreting out facts through endless interrogatories
rather than destroying witnesses with withering cross-examinations.
Let's face it: "bureaucratic" is probably a more apt
term than "aesthetic" to describe the daily routine
of the legal profession.
And, of course, there are always
the moral quandaries that Freddie ignores, but which real lawyers
have to face. Freddie doesn't care about ethics, but real-life
lawyers do. They don't really like it when good people go to
jail or bad people go free.
"Punching cows" is
hard, dirty, low-paying work. Still, I'll bet that doesn't stop
"real" cowboys from enjoying a John Wayne movie once
in a while.
Posted January 11, 2002