This legal guide discusses how the public view of attorneys is reflected in the media. Over the years we have descended from the heroic Atticus Finch to the conniving Alan Shore. It may be hard for people today to believe that at one time Americans respected and looked up to lawyers. Many of the Founding Fathers were lawyers as well as Abraham Lincoln, the Savior of the Republic. Today lawyers are often listed just under used car salesmen in the jaded eye of the public. In the old days lawyers were great fathers: see Mr. Smith in MEET ME AT ST.LOUIS and Atticus Finch in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Lawyers defended civil rights: Henry Drummond in INHERIT THE WIND ( a fictionalized version of the famous Clarence Darrow). Lawyers even got skeptics to believe in Santa Claus: Fred Gailey in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET. And there was always the brave lawyer recovering from an illness who was not too sick to prove a man innocent of murder: Sir Wilfred Roberts in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.
Perry Mason and Criminal Defense Lawyers
Perry Mason never lost a case. Every week on TV, the witless prosecutor Hamilton Burger would charge the wrong person, bring them to court and the audience watched with fascination while Perry Mason tore the case apart. The show usually ended with someone from the courtroom audience sitting in the witness chair and confessing the whole crime. Even as a child I could recognize how warped this was. A prosecutor who lost every case week after week would soon be looking for another job. In real life, if a defense lawyer had evidence in favor of his client, the lawyer would not wait until the trial to bring it forward. A judge would have the lawyer's head for wasting the court's time when the evidence freeing the defendant was at hand. And whoever heard the real culprit marching up to the witness chair and blurting the whole story out? Even dumb criminals know enough to shut up and get a defense lawyer between them and the trial process. This was a very romanticized view.
Hero Lawyers Today at the Movies
Even in today's movies there are depictions of great lawyers. The personal injury team in
ERIN BROKOVITCH has lawyer Ed Masry proving polluted water harmed many people. The lawyer Rudy Baylor in the RAINMAKER takes on a large insurance company, in VERDICT a recovering alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin struggles to win a jury award for a woman paralyzed by a medical mistake; the divorce lawyer D'Amato in WAR OF THE ROSES convinces a client not to be nasty in the midst of a separation. And the defense lawyer Gareth Pierce IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER shows a jury how the British criminal justice system railroaded an innocent man in their battle with IRA sympathizers. In PHILADELPHIA lawyer Joe Miller helps another lawyer fired from his law firm for being gay. Fighting for the little guy or gal is what lawyers often do best.
Bad Lawyers in the Movies
Today the movies are much more likely to portray lawyers as villains. THE FIRM has new lawyer Mitch McDeere finding out his law office is part of the mob. THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE has young NYC lawyer Kevin Lomax working for the devil, called John Milton (named after the English poet who penned PARADISE LOST). REGARDING HENRY depicts nasty lawyer Henry Turner -- who once cheated on his wife and lied in the course of a a medical defense suit,-- who was a real sob-- until he was shot by a store robber --and during his rehabilitation gradually learned to become a human being again. Once achieving humanity, he immediately quits being a lawyer. LIAR LIAR had lawyer Fletcher Reede (who followed the title in his law practice) often lying to his own 5 year old son. JURASSIC PARK had lawyer Jack Sturgel eaten by a dinosaur with the audience rooting for the reptile.
Ethically Challenged Lawyers in Television
The small screen has brought us its share of lawyers with many problems. ALLY McBEAL follows a young woman lawyer who winds up working at a firm with her former boyfriend who is now married and her boss John Cage who never seemed to learn the lawyers' code of ethics. She spends much of her work time imagining the horrors of her lonely love life. (Of course she is pretty but who needs such a flake on your case?) Also, Alan Shore and Denny Crane in BOSTON LEGAL are a very odd couple. Shore is brilliant with no ethical compass, and Crane is no longer capable of being a lawyer but still brings clients in because of his past reputation. He spends most of the time chasing skirts-- not paper --and no one in the firm seems to realize he should be out on his ear.
Some Contemporary Good Lawyers in Movies and Television
Contemporary movies can still come up with the occasional lawyer hero. Jack Sturges in MAN OF THE HOUSE struggles to show the son of his girl friend that he can be a good husband and father, putting up with obstacles from her son that most men would walk away from. On television defense attorney Bobby Donnell and the rest of his firm in THE PRACTICE provide a much more sophisticated version of defense work than Perry Mason ever did. Prosecutor Michael Cutter and his staff in LAW AND ORDER is much more talented than the hapless Hamilton Burger who vainly took on Perry Mason. There is a sophisticated police investigation team followed by a team of lawyers who actually know how to gather evidence, provide witnesses and conduct a trial without trampling on the rights of the suspects.
See beyond images
Lawyers can be depicted as very good or very corrupt or very foolish in the entertainment media. But the public needs to understand that there are good attorneys out there who are not replicas of the media version --who will not break the rules to win a case, who know how to work at a trial without trampling on the rights of others. The Media can give us a glimpse of what a good attorney is --but for the public a good attorney is the one who does the best work for you--the client.