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A Free Soul—Drunk Lawyers in the Movies

By Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (June 1998)

The first of the great alcoholic film lawyers was Steven Ash in A Free Soul (1931), for which Lionel Barrymore received an Oscar. The picture also features Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, and Leslie Howard.

Ash was based on the character of Earl Rogers, who was as famous and notorious in California in the early years of the century as Melvin Belli or Johnny Cochran. Rogers was the lawyer you had to get if you were in trouble—and could afford him. Rogers represented Clarence Darrow in Darrow’s jury tampering trial in 1912. Rogers was a hopeless alcoholic whose career ultimately collapsed because of his illness. He died broke and alone.

In his fine book about the Darrow trial, The People v. Clarence Darrow (Times Books 1993), Geoff Cowan writes about Rogers:

In the winter of 1911-12, Earl Rogers was at the height of his powers, already a criminal lawyer of national note, well on his way to becoming the legendary creator of courtroom antics, tactics, and drama that novelists would try to capture and criminal lawyers would try to imitate. His reputation had already begun to emerge as the larger-than-life prototype of a defense counsel whose matinee idol following is only enhanced by his remarkable combination of wit, charm, intemperance, and deviousness, and his wide range of friendships with journalists, detectives, barkeepers, and prostitutes. Earl Rogers was a comet on the horizon of criminal law, a blazing figure whose brief but remarkable career left an image that still remains. (Id. at 283-84).

Rogers’ life, and his terrible struggle with alcoholism, were chronicled in a biography called Final Verdict (Doubleday, 1962) written by his daughter Adela Rogers St. Johns who became a successful novelist and journalist. It seems Adela never went to school much, mostly hanging out at her dad’s law office and attending his famous trials. The book was made into an unsuccessful film, also called Final Verdict (1991), which focuses on several of Rogers’ early and most famous trials. Treat Williams plays Rogers in this film.

A Free Soul was based on a novel written by Adela. It’s a fictionalized account of her father’s life—and her own. In the film, Adela is Jan Ash—the free soul of the title who flaunts the stodgy conventions of upper class San Francisco. Steven Ash represents Ace Wilfong (Gable), a roguish gambler in a murder case. The key evidence against Wilfong is his hat which was found at the crime scene. Through dishonest means, Ash substitutes a much smaller hat for the one previously introduced in evidence—and then Wilfong is acquitted when the phony hat doesn’t fit. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Later Jan takes up with Ace, over Steven’s objection and, gasp, spends the night with him. When she refuses to marry Ace, he threatens to spread the gossip all over San Francisco. Jan’s loving friend Dwight Winthrop (Howard), whom she has spurned as too dull, kills Wilfong to preserve Jan’s honor. Meanwhile, Steven has drunk his way into the gutter.

Things seem hopeless in Winthrop’s murder trial, but Jan finds Steven passed out in a cheap saloon and drags him into the courtroom. Steven is almost too weak and dissipated to speak, but he takes over the case and delivers an impassioned closing argument. Then he falls dead on the courtroom floor. Very melodramatic—and very effective.

Substance abuse among lawyers is a terrible problem. Studies indicate that the alcoholism rate among lawyers may be twice that of the general population—perhaps 20% of the total number of lawyers. It is unknown whether this high incidence rate results from the extreme stress of practicing law, or because the same personality traits predispose one to law practice and substance abuse. Nobody knows the extent of cocaine abuse among lawyers, but it too is undoubtedly substantial and devastating.

Substance abuse inevitably results in impaired performance—at least poor judgment, incompetence and neglect of client affairs, sometimes fraud and theft from clients. Fifty to seventy percent of the disciplinary cases brought before state bar ethics panels result at least in part from alcohol or drug abuse. A great many malpractice cases also have their roots in substance abuse. There are now substantial resources available to help lawyers in trouble with substance abuse, such as The Other Bar, a Twelve Step program intended for lawyers, and state bar diversion programs. Nevertheless, the problem is very serious and appears to be getting worse.

Recent films have done a good job of showing lawyers drastically impaired by alcohol abuse. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict comes to mind immediately; he’s a hopeless drunk who ignores his cases and solicits business by showing up at the funerals of strangers.

Lucian Wilbanks (Donald Sutherland) has been disbarred for alcoholism in A Time to Kill. In one powerful scene, Wilbanks wanders his estate sipping from the bottle as he advises Jake Brigance on tactics in the upcoming trial of Carl Lee Hailey.

In Sleepers, Benny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) barely manages to walk around. He also has "a small drug problem." His ineptitude is the reason he’s recruited as a defense lawyer in the DA’s scheme to throw the case. If Snyder doesn’t follow orders, he’s told by the neighborhood crime boss, he can look forward to a "dirtnap." I’d welcome readers’ suggestions about additional films showing lawyers with drinking or drug problems.

Numerous lawyers are shown drinking during the work day, as in And Justice for All and Body Heat. This has to affect their performance the rest of the day and may well be a precursor to much more severe alcoholism problems down the road—like those that destroyed the brilliant careers of Steven Ash in A Free Soul and his real-life model, Earl Rogers.

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through


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