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Are Lawyer Films Anti-Lawyer?

By James R. Elkins, West Virginia University (January 1998)

I sometimes hear the suggestion that lawyer films coming out of Hollywood are anti-lawyer and that this anti-lawyer perspective is linked in some way to the anti-law mood that has seized so many of our fellow citizens. It’s true enough that we get some rather negative images of lawyers in film, as a fellow film-critic put it, you are likely to see on the screen a lawyer who would sell his grandmother in order to get a conviction. Is it possible that we are misreading the negative images?

Before I examine the notion that lawyer films are basically anti-lawyer, I want to question the idea that the anti-law mood in the country is related to the anti-lawyer sentiment in Hollywood films. If the two moods—anti-law and anti-lawyer—are joined at the hip, then I’ve been misguided in the idea that the anti-lawyer sentiment was valuable and instructive. I should make clear I do not share the right-wing anti-law (anti-government) hysteria that grips us, emerging in the form of the politically repressed. (The return of the repressed is never a pretty sight!) I have spent enough time over the past two decades in travels throughout Asia, Indonesia, South and Central America, Mexico, Africa, and China to return with a deep and abiding respect for governments in the United States (local, state, and national) that make life reasonablely tolerable if sometimes aggravating. For those who demand less government I recommend a week in Bangkok to get a flavor of what it might be like to live with government reduced to its police function. With less law the powerful have a field day (as if they don’t with a full plate in the most law-ful of societies) ...really... isn’t that the idea of having less law, so the powerful can have their way without interference? Let the powerful and the lawless rule, where does that leave those who simply want to live, work, love, play, see their children grow old. No...it’s certainly not anti-law that captures my fancy.

How, then, can I contend that the anti-lawyer mood is valuable while the anti-law impulse is troublesome? Let me begin with the comments of deX—this is his Web signature—a rather controversial participant in a web "film-philosophy" forum. I reproduce here, a posting on this subject, in response to some of my comments (you will note that deX doesn’t bother to use capitals):

"ultimately, i think that most popular legal films do not simply offer us the ‘sell your grandmother’ view. rather, in an attempt to acknowledge the populist conceptions of corruption and somehow defuse and demythologise law (read ‘damage control’), they start with grandmother sales as the negative against which a positive alternative of the triumph of true justice is achieved by following the changes undergone by a romantic and ideal character who is usually nothing short of pure ethix in the flesh. in such dramas the Law, more often than not, is constructed as the ultimate instrument for true change and the best place to make a real difference despite corruption.

"in my experience what most people walk away from a legal drama pic or tv series thinking is not that lawyers sell their grandmas, but that law is simply interpretation. there are those who interpret it for their own selfish means and those who interpret it in such a way as to reinvent the world into a better place for all. what astounds me in most of these dramas is the apparent impartiality and under treatment of the judges and jurors with whom the actual decisions lie."

deX is not a lawyer but he knows something about lawyer films. We see lawyers cast in a negative light because they are given an opportunity to walk up to a line that says DO NOT CROSS/DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT and what do they do? They cross that line. They walk across it as if it were not there, as if it were written in Farsi. Indeed, walking across it, they put on a casual air (who me? what line?) as if crossing such a line were the most casual thing in the world. But we film viewers know the line is there; we assume, based on everything we know that the lawyer MUST know the line is there and has been crossed. What kind of reality is it, what kind of fictional world does the lawyer live in, that permits the kind of line crossing that we see in lawyer films?

Is it not this ability of the film viewer to see the line and read the DO NOT CROSS sign and the failure of the lawyer to heed the line, that makes for a negative image? Who, one wants to ask, gives the lawyer the god-almighty power to ignore the kind of lines the rest of us are punished for crossing? Is there something in the character, the training, the selection of these people who become lawyers that make them unable to see what the film viewer can see? And how could Hollywood lawyer films portray this line crossing in such a deliberate and persistent fashion if lawyers in the non-cinema world (if there can be such a place) do not do just this kind of line crossing which the lawyer film dramatizes?

If there is a lawyer film genre, and I tend to believe there is, then the lawyer film, must, in part, address the question: How is it that otherwise intelligent, trained people can be so blind? And by what measure of magic and character have we film viewers gained such acute vision that we can know and see what the lawyer does not? We may think we know more than we do. Our fascination with lawyers may at one level be rooted in the viewer’s moral superior vision, but at a different level I think fascination (and insatiable appetite) for lawyers and the dramas that swirl around them (and in them) is rooted in the realization that lawyers engage in the forbidden: they go (and get paid for the going) to places that speak of real danger. The lawyer is a sight to behold because he knows the Devil’s work firsthand. In the film Devil’s Advocate the young talented lawyer is good at his work and seems to have a special talent, a way of understanding jurors that his colleagues do not have. He is sufficiently talented that he is given a chance (as are so many of the talented) to back away from his talent or use it to take him as far as he can go. Lawyers know (and litigate) the excess, they see it up close, and cannot spare themselves from it. They cross-over and take up with the "Devil." Crossing over is what we come to see in lawyer films. Lawyers, in film and in the non-cinema world, traffic in underground matters (the broken, the shady, the false, the fraudulent, the criminal—all manner of Id stuff) and make a good living doing it.

This compact that film lawyers and their non-cinema world counterparts make with the devil creates good drama. Is it not the tale of good and evil revisited? Lawyer films portray the on-going drama between good and evil—isn’t this what a big trial is about?—but worked out on a scale and in a context of individual lives (clients, lawyers, judges). Good and evil, placed in the context of skillfully contrived lawyer dramas, make us edgy because good and evil do not come clearly labeled. Good men and women go astray. Those who go astray find their way home. It is this subtle mix of superior vision (the film viewer knows who is good and who is evil) and the not-knowing (the film viewer’s assumptions are up-ended) that make for good drama.

There is an element of the lawyer film drama that bears that further exploration—power. Lawyers, who for the most part do not have real power, are close to power. Watching lawyers, we (viewers) get a bit closer to power (with all its glory and its evil) because we know that lawyers are of the people. Lawyers are more agent, salesman (often enough selling the kind of medicine we know as "snake-oil") than they are born to power. Yes, a few lawyers acquire it by association, money, or delegation, but ultimately lawyers are trained to get close to power and know of it without actually having it.

We are all, I think, curious about power: how it works, tempts, corrupts, and some, including some lawyers, can get close to power without be ruined by their exposure. It is in seeing, in the life of lawyer protagonists, and their skilled defense of the misuse of power, and then, in the opposition to power and its defenders by those possessed of conscience acting on behalf of those who have been done an injustice, that we learn about power.

Basically, we entertain lawyers as villains all the more to celebrate the virtue of which they are so capable, yet fail to live up to. We disdain those to whom we have held out hope, the spouse who betrays our love, the abusive parent entrusted with the care of a vulnerable child, an admired public figure shown to be lacking in virtue. We know that without law and the lawyer of conscience, the skilled and passionate lawyer, the lawyer who battles as wounded healer, we will have no defense against the powerful. So we want lawyers to get close enough to power, to know its ways and vulnerabilities, to have become so much a part of it, that this knowledge and skill can be used to maintain a more inhabitable world. We want someone, anyone, lawyer, political, local businessmen and women, who will speak truth to power—and would not the viewer if he or she but had the courage? Power opposes truth and lawyers know this and have the wherewithal—sometimes—to do something about it.

The thing about lawyers (and they most certainly are not the only folks in society who do this) is their ability (if not their practice) to speak truth to power and live to speak another day. Most of us know it takes more courage than many lawyers will have to speak truthfully about what they know (or even, for that matter to speak openly and truthfully to clients when no one but the client is listening). Maybe, we shouldn’t expect lawyers to be anymore courageous than the next man or women, but we do. The kind of courageous speaking I have in mind is certainly not a routine matter; lawyers are most definitely not trained in American law schools to know about power and that we might oppose it. Law students are not warned that they will be given the opportunity to oppose power and many of them will not possess the courage, skill, and psychological and communal resources to do what they know needs to be done. No, it’s not a mundane sort of thing this speaking in opposition to power (and those who have it). Talk to Anita Hill or anyone who talks back to power and you will hear the same tale repeated as mantra: the powerful will try to destroy you if they cannot corrupt you or coopt you. The powerful know only how to use power leaving destruction in their path.

We see so little courage in the non-cinema world (where our culture routinely marginalizes those who speak in non-conforming ways) that we turn to film, lawyer films included, to witness a world in which wild/id/energy can be recognized as a form of truth. As an afficionado of anti-lawyer sentiments in popular culture, I don’t think we are fully conscience of how much we depend on film and television for our instructions on the ways of power and its destructive potential. (Of course, there is a counter-pull, an ideology within lawyer films and television lawyer dramas that immobilizes us, even as we learn the condition we are in.) I think we watch film (and television) to escape the smoothing sense of powerlessness we experience and see being living around us. There is, in seeing the powerful opposed and defeated in the world of lawyer films, a suggestion that power and its corruption can be comprehended and defeated. Lawyer protagonists come to grips with power, either power out in the world, or the sense of powerless in their own lives, and that is what the film viewer most desires.

We see lawyers in film, e.g., Devil’s Advocate, succumb to power because the lawyer is seduced by his own talent and the lure of the big time/big city. He wants to push himself, and his talents, to let them take him as far as he can go. We (viewers) know that this talent used unreflectively is a vice and that he will be the last to know that his prized virtue has become an empty shell. Is it anti-lawyer to show how a talent can lead a lawyer astray?

We don’t watch anti-lawyer films to participate in the anti-law sentiment in this country. Indeed, lawyer films are not, it turns out so much anti-lawyer, as they are an opportunity to participate vicariously in dramas that upend our lives, the sense that the drama of good and evil has not been finally settled, that the outcome, even when resolved in the film, is still in doubt for it—the great drama—must be restaged again and again and again. We do not, and the lawyers in film do not, finally prevail over evil by acting virtuously, but by surviving to fighting another day. To have and understand our heros, film lawyer heroes and everyday heros, we must know the reality of failure and the possibility of tragedy, and perhaps its inevitability.

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