Bar News - October 14, 2011
Presidentís Perspective: What is Your Favorite Lawyer Movie?
By: Jennifer L. Parent
Chances are your response to this question is similar to many of the lawyers I surveyed over the past few weeks who identified films that champion the concept of justice and the law and uphold ethical standards. The most common answers to this question were movies like To Kill A Mockingbird, A Few Good Men, and even My Cousin Vinny. Compare this to the popular movies and television shows today that depict a legal system with no apparent moral codes or any decorum in the courtroom or with opposing counsel. This chasm between our vision of the legal profession and what society perceives as the legal profession (because of what it is exposed to through popular culture) is a challenge for us all as we seek to improve the image of lawyers and the profession.
|Jennifer L. Parent
In my brief survey, I found that many of us identified with movies that supported the belief in preserving justice, where the lawyer stayed true to the integrity of the legal system despite negative influences or the taking of unpopular positions. Some lawyers acknowledged entering into the practice of law because of the stalwart acts of Atticus Finch. The inspiration of this protagonist has lawyers talking about him as if he were a real person rather than a fictional character.
As lawyers, we enjoy the scene where Navy lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), after a late-night practice session for cross-examination, gets Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) to admit to ordering a "Code Red" on a soldier. We are reminded that preparation and case research can bring effective results. Then there is the character of cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) who reminds us what it is like to try our first case and to learn how things work in the legal system as we go. In a very funny and entertaining way, Vinnyís persistence in doing the right thing for his client results in success and gains the respect of others in the courtroom, including the conservative and curmudgeonly judge (played by Fred Gwynn a/k/a Herman Munster). And who doesnít want to earn the respect of the judge?
Understandably, a recent movie, Robert Redfordís The Conspirator, received good reviews after being shown to members of the American Bar Associationís Mid-Year Meeting in Atlanta. Depicting the trial of the alleged conspirators in President Lincolnís assassination, it had a positive portrayal of a young lawyer who, despite the shunning by his closest friends and fiancťe, continues to defend one of the accused, Mary Surratt, during a highly charged and emotional time in our countryís history. Imagine the courage that this took.
As I spoke with lawyers about their favorite lawyer movies, I was not surprised by the films they identified. The law is a noble profession. Lawyers serve as advocates, problem solvers, and advisors to individuals who are often desperate and experiencing some of the most challenging times in their lives. The system is designed to operate with professionalism and civility, and the selection of favorite movies by lawyers reflects this view.
On the other hand, the general publicís understanding about what a lawyer does and how the judicial system works is often based on other Hollywood portrayals. Courtroom scenes, which would draw shouts of "You canít do that!" or "Thatís unrealistic!" from those of us in our living rooms, appear the norm to the audience. Society builds its perceptions on what it sees and hears, regardless of how unrealistic these images may be.
Most of the movies and television shows today depict a system where lawyers have a Machiavellian win-at-any-cost attitude, including twisting of the truth and attacks on opponents. Denny Crane (William Shatner) of Boston Legal has a "Never lost; Never Will" motto. Matthew McConaughey in The Lincoln Lawyer is not named after our sixteenth president (who has been regarded by some historians as a superb trial lawyer) but rather the type of car he works out of for his practice in Los Angeles County. Even the courtroom antics shown in the recent Franklin & Bash series are beyond reality.
Lawyer jokes are told to us the moment anyone learns we are headed to law school. I still have the Three-Stooges t-shirt for the law firm "Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe" someone gave me at graduation.
Like the movies lawyers favor, we need to show the public the core values of our justice system and the critical role lawyers play in that system. Think about how different To Kill a Mockingbird would be if there was no Atticus Finch. It is important to the future of the legal profession to improve the image of lawyers and dispel the false impressions that are now so prevalent on the big screen. We will work this year to expand the publicís awareness of the number of volunteer hours that lawyers give back to the system through pro bono services, reduced fee arrangements, and mediation services. Lawyers are making a difference not only within the legal system but also in the communities where we live and work.
As we promote the contributions and differences lawyers make, we must be mindful of the perceptions and the influence of popular culture on society. These influences are great but not conclusive. We need to emphasize the value of lawyers within the system. It is our responsibility to be advocates for our profession. How will you heed this call?
Jennifer L. Parent is the New Hampshire Bar Association President for the 2011-2012 year. She is a director of the McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton.