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March|April 2003
The Jazz Man By Aviam Soifer
Danger in Numbers By Neal Kumar Katyal
Reversals of Fortune By Patrick Keefe
Opinion For Sale By Steven Moss

Reversals of Fortune

How Hollywood makes heroes out of lawyers.

By Patrick Keefe

THE OPENING SHOT OF THE VERDICT HAS Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman, framed in the window of a bar, enjoying a prelunch whiskey and killing time on a pinball machine. Galvin is a washed-up personal injury lawyer with a nonexistent practice and, yes, a drinking problem. The tone of the 1982 film, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by David Mamet, is set by Galvin's haggard look. Using breath spray to hide the smell of booze and an eyedropper to clear the rheum, Galvin proceeds to a wake, where he waits in line to console the bereaved widow—then hands her his card. By the time he is chucked out of the funeral home, he has stirred the audience's pity and contempt in equal measure.

It was once possible to make a movie in which a lawyer was a hero, to build a story around an Atticus Finch or a Clarence Darrow. But these lofty characters date from a more idealistic era in American cinema, and although the musical and the epic have recently made comebacks, the heroic lawyer movie is unlikely to be following close on their heels.

John Grisham's band of wide-eyed and good-hearted rookies notwithstanding, lawyers nowadays tend to be typecast as morally vacuous opportunists, practitioners of a black art that is inaccessible to the average Joe yet utterly capable of ruining his life. This trope found its most absurd expression in The Devil's Advocate (1997), in which Keanu Reeves plays a Florida lawyer who moves to the big city and ends up representing Lucifer himself. Other recent lawyer movies aren't much more subtle.

But Hollywood being Hollywood, there is always room for redemption, even in a jaundiced age: for repentant Nazis (Schindler's List), for incarcerated killers (Dead Man Walking), even for lawyers. The Verdict is one of a handful of courtroom dramas in which lawyers are allowed to be heroic, not in the born-heroic manner of Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch, but in classic Hollywood redemption style, where heroism must be mustered at a crucial juncture.

Shortly after getting kicked out of the funeral home, Frank Galvin finally lands a decent case. Though he has every intention of settling the matter out of court, he soon realizes that there is more at stake than money, and he decides to avenge his client—a legitimate victim of malpractice—by taking the case to trial.

The Verdict and a series of films that have followed its lead over the last two decades chronicle the lives of down-and-out attorneys who have been lulled by the routines of their practices into risk-averse lawyering for profit—and along the way, have lost the ability to make moral judgments. But in the end they are redeemed through a Big Case.

In the James Woods vehicle True Believer (1989), and more recently in A Civil Action (1998) and Erin Brockovich (2000), lawyers who have lost touch with the nobler aspects of the profession are instilled with the desire to see the justice system dispense justice. These films adhere to a fairly strict formula. The lawyers, often personal injury lawyers, are jolted out of their parasitic and banal existence by the novelty of an innocent and deserving client. While profit might lead them to take on the case, a moral awakening persuades them not to settle, and to proceed to trial in the face of staggering odds.

The decisive moment for The Verdict's Galvin comes when he takes the case of a young woman who was administered the wrong anesthetic during childbirth and slipped into a coma. Her sister and brother-in-law have been caring for her and want a modest settlement for their efforts, and Galvin agrees to help them. Trouble is, the hospital responsible, Saint Catherine's, is run by the Archdiocese of Boston, an institution not keen on admitting it has made a mistake.

It would be foolish to proceed to trial against such an adamant and resourceful opponent, and that's fine by Galvin, who is looking for a quick settlement and a paycheck. Galvin visits his client and snaps two Polaroids to take to the archdiocese. But as he watches the photographs develop, looking to see how effective they will be as bargaining chips, Galvin sees instead the young woman's contorted and inanimate body. He glimpses for the first time his client's very real suffering.

In what is a staple plot element of these movies, there is an offer to settle. The archdiocese regards Galvin as a hack who is terrified of going to trial and would much rather collect the easy money and run. Sitting in the opulent chambers of the Boston Catholic establishment, clutching his briefcase like a lifejacket in this sea of splendors, Galvin, who has told his clients he'll be taking a third of any settlement, fingers the check handed to him by the bishop's adjutant and murmurs that he's struck by "how neatly three [goes] into this figure of two hundred and ten thousand dollars."

The Galvin of the movie's opening scene would have taken a check that big and headed straight for the nearest bar, but his visit to the hospital has changed him. "If I take the money, I'm lost," he says. "I'll just be a rich ambulance chaser." A fundamental message of these films is that settling isn't winning. So we get to enjoy the spectacle of Galvin taking on the team of arrogant lawyers assembled by the Church, which is led by no less imposing a figure than the British actor James Mason.

Mason plays Ed Concannon, a courtly litigator whose genteel purr masks a ferocious sensibility and a taste for dirty tactics. Concannon is backed up by a fleet of eager associates and by Judge Hoyle (Milo O'Shea), who with his white locks and thick black eyebrows looks like a corrupt raccoon. Hoyle wants the case to go away—before lunchtime if at all possible. From the bench he asks, "Frank, what would you and your client take right here this very minute to walk out of here and let this damn thing drop?" To which Galvin shoots back, "My client can't walk, your honor."

GOOD CLIENTS MAKE GOOD LAWYERS, these movies imply, but good clients are few and far between. In True Believer, James Woods plays Eddie Dodd, a ponytailed pot smoker who started out as a sixties-era civil rights lawyer but now mainly fights to get reduced sentences for white-collar drug dealers. An idealistic young clerk, played by Robert Downey Jr., and an aggressively implausible series of plot machinations conspire to bring back the fire of Dodd's youth. But what his resurrection ultimately relies on is that greater rarity: a client who happens to be innocent. Suddenly the lawyer who had lost his passion for the job finds it anew, in the form of what Woods fans call pyrotechnics but to the rest of us seems to be bug-eyed bluster.

The good client in The Verdict, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich is an even rarer breed: the truly wronged personal injury client. When we think of personal injury law, we think of fender-bender survivors strapping on the old neck brace and of the doubly parasitic lawyers who encourage ("Have you been hurt on the job?") and enable the injured to sue. The portrayal of personal injury law in the opening moments of these films plays on this preconception, leaving the viewer suspicious of plaintiffs and defendants.

A Civil Action begins with John Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann, in a voice-over, giving his definition of a good client: "The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all."

Tort lawyers, it seems, are little more than con men, a conclusion that hearkens back to Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie (1966), in which Walter Matthau's "Whiplash Willie" Gingrich persuades his brother-in-law (Jack Lemmon) to fake an injury in order to collect a settlement. In The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon's character is a decent guy, however, and isn't sure he likes the scam. Likewise, in A Civil Action, the families of children who have died because of chemical dumping in their town are so decent they don't want money for their legitimate losses—they just want an apology. Schlichtmann points out that the practical challenge is finding someone "who is going to apologize to you and pay me."

Unlike Frank Galvin in The Verdict, Schlichtmann starts out as a success story, a snappy dresser who drives a Porsche. His stature may reflect the considerable growth in the size of tort settlements between the 1970s, when Galvin practiced personal injury law in Boston, and the 1990s, when Schlichtmann did.

But while Schlichtmann may not be struggling financially, the opening sequences of A Civil Action reveal him to be morally and spiritually bankrupt—a graver illness than being washed up. During his initial encounter with the families of the dead children, Schlicht-mann shows that he has lost touch with the human element of tort law. The meeting is observed from an adjoining kitchen, where some carefully arranged refreshments lie neglected in the foreground as Schlichtmann patronizes the families, concluding that where there is no deep-pocketed company to sue, there is no case.

Schlichtmann eventually takes the case, but only because he discovers, by accident, that there is a chance the corporate giants Beatrice Foods and Grace could be held responsible for the deaths. As he watches a Beatrice truck pull away from the tannery that has allegedly poisoned the community's water, you can almost see Schlichtmann tabulating the bottom line, performing the "calculus of personal injury law" in his head.

Along the way, however, Schlichtmann, like Galvin, has an epiphany. One family tells Schlichtmann about how their child died on the way to the hospital, in the breakdown lane on I-93. Some time later, on the same stretch of road, Schlichtmann imagines this scene and begins to comprehend the suffering of those affected by the chemical dumping. Schlichtmann's determination, like that of Galvin, stems from a growing identification with his clients and from a desire to see if the system he has spent a career gaming can actually be forced to deliver justice.

There is also something unmistakably narcissistic in the fervor with which these men pursue their cases. The suffering of the clients in these films is important, but the clients occupy supporting roles: The ability to recognize the clients' plight is a mere precondition for Galvin's and Schlichtmann's coming to terms with their own depravity.

When Galvin turns down the settlement offer from the archdiocese, his refusal is more selfish than an acceptance would have been: he proceeds to trial against his clients' wishes. Schlichtmann's determination to win is so intense that he disregards not only the interests of his clients, but also those of his law partners—whom he alienates and bankrupts. In case we were in any doubt about why he goes to trial, Schlictmann guides us along with another voice-over:

The odds of surviving a game of Russian roulette are better than winning a case at trial. So why does anyone do it? They settle. Trials are a corruption of the entire process. And only fools with something to prove end up ensnared in them. And when I say "prove" I don't mean about the case. I mean about themselves.

BUT IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO HAVE A GOOD client to root for. These are Hollywood courtroom dramas, after all, and we need someone to root against. If you want to have your lawyer be a hero, says the producer to the screenwriter, the story had better be on the David and Goliath model, and Goliath had better be a lawyer for the other side. In A Civil Action, Goliath takes the form of Jerome Facher, a real-life litigator at the big, aggressive Boston firm of Hale and Dorr and a lecturer at Harvard Law School.

Facher is portrayed by Robert Duvall as a bundle of Dickensian eccentricities who retreats to the dusty stacks of the firm library to eat brown-bag lunches and listen to the Red Sox on a transistor radio. Facher banters with John Lithgow's Judge Walter Skinner, also a Harvard man. Schlichtmann fails to establish any such rapport. At one meeting with the executive vice president of Grace, Schlichtmann reveals that he has never been to the Harvard Club. Sidney Pollack, playing the Grace V.P., asks, "What kind of a Harvard man are you?" With an awkward, embarrassed smile, Schlichtmann replies, "The Cornell kind."

In The Verdict, James Mason's Ed Concannon is a consummate insider. Though he works for a fictional firm, the stature and trappings are old school, and his cohort of young associates all have the scrubbed and tweedy Harvard look about them. Galvin, on the other hand, went to law school at Boston College and has none of Concannon's connections. When he decides to defend St. Catherine's, Concannon casually remarks, "I want something in The Herald Monday morning," as though he were ordering room service.

The only lawyers with whom we can identify, it seems, are the outsiders, the ones who are up against more powerful, plugged-in adversaries. This notion of the underdog lawyer as outsider is taken to its logical extreme in Stephen Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich. The title character, played by Julia Roberts, who won an Oscar for the role, is not an insider. She's not even a lawyer.

From the opening shots of the movie, when her own effort to win a case against a man who blindsided her car deteriorates after she shouts, "That asshole smashed in my fucking neck," it's clear that Brockovich is someone who speaks like a normal person, seeing through legal obfuscations to the (sometimes profane) truth at the heart of things. While the lawyer for whom Brockovich works, the dyspeptic Ed Masry (Albert Finney), is the standard career ambulance chaser of the Frank Galvin model, all gin blossoms and guttural harrumphs, Brockovich is a breath of idealism and attitude that blows through his stale offices.

It is precisely Brockovich's lack of standing at the bar that makes her the ideal Hollywood personal injury lawyer. She has an empathetic connection and "common touch" with the plaintiffs in her developing class-action case against Pacific Gas and Electric for contaminating the groundwater in a residential area. She cuts through stuffiness, gets to the point, and insists on translating the often deliberately misleading language of the law into terms regular people can understand. When she knocks on doors and is asked if she is a lawyer, she replies, "Hell, no. I hate lawyers, I just work for them," which seems sufficient to get her invited in for lemonade.

BUT WHILE PLEASANTLY IDEALISTIC IN an immediate sense, the underlying message in Erin Brockovich, as in other recent films in which lawyers become heroes, is a cynical one. More than suggesting that plaintiffs and defendants are often crooked, these films seem to argue that the law itself, in its cold objectivity and its refusal to make exceptions, is somehow antithetical to justice. These films start with the assumption that if lawyers are generally rotten people, then it's the study and practice of law that made them that way.

The legal system taints insiders like Mason's Concannon in The Verdict; these movies rely on uncorrupted outsiders like Brockovich to make the adjudication process work again. "I admit I don't know shit about shit," Erin says to Masry. "But I know the difference between right and wrong." Her implication seems to be that lawyers may know a great deal about the technical aspects of the law, but that this knowledge has impaired their ability to make the fundamental judgments necessary to effect justice. At the culmination of the case in The Verdict, Galvin makes the same point, arguing that the whole adjudicatory system is constructed to make real justice inaccessible to real people. "We doubt the law. But today you are the law . . . . Not some book. Not the lawyers. Not a marble statue or the trappings of the court."

If that isn't an invitation to jury nullification, it's hard to say what is. But asking a jury to disregard the law is consistent with the message of these films. The lawyers have lost their humanity in their immersion in the law, but these deracinated souls manage to find new resolve by representing innocent clients and placing the demands of justice over profit, practice, and even the law itself.

And they pull it off—handsomely. In several of these cases, redemption comes with a big check. You have to love the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too dynamics of Hollywood storytelling. Frank Galvin lives in a basement flat and doesn't fool anyone when he says his secretary has just stepped out. While Ed Masry seems to have a steady practice and a decent strip-mall office in the opening scenes of Erin Brockovich, he is living day-to-day. It is only when these characters embrace idealism that they find big money.

Galvin's principled stand proves to be a wildly successful gamble. Having heard a case in which little has gone right for Galvin and the few coups he's scored have been stricken from the record by Judge Hoyle, the jury foreman announces that he and his colleagues find for the plaintiff and asks if the jury is free to award an amount greater than the sum the plaintiff requested. A similar payoff concludes Erin Brockovich, with Masry striding through his new suite of swish offices to present Erin with a check—for $2 million.

These movies suggest that on some occasions, a jury will do what's right and pay the redeemed lawyer handsomely to boot. A simple tale, and not a very realistic one. In real life, outside the prescribed arc of a Hollywood narrative, most lawyers are probably more scrupulous than these characters are at the beginning of a film and less scrupulous than they are at the end. But who couldn't love a story that allows Paul Newman to sidle down the bar to a ravishing Charlotte Rampling and utter what is surely one of the great pick-up lines: "I changed my life today. What'd you do?"

Patrick Keefe, a student at Yale Law School, is working on a book about American signals intelligence.

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