At the Movies
California Lawyer

At the Movies

August 2013

When it comes to making movies, perhaps the only subjects who are more compelling than lawyers are hit men and princesses. Litigation provides built-in conflict. It also presents the screenwriter with a realistic scenario in which the impassioned hero or villain can deliver a stirring, Oscar-worthy monologue.

Sure, characters like Indiana Jones and Rocky Balboa have larger muscles. But when members of the American Film Institute got together in 2003 to vote for the greatest hero in American movies, they chose Atticus Finch, as portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1962 screen adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

As Oscar Wilde once observed: "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." So what do some of the most celebrated scenes in movie history tell us about the current status of the law? Consider, if you will, these snippets:

Exhibit 1: From A Few Good Men (1992)
Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson): You want answers?
Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise): I think I'm entitled.
Jessep: You want answers?!
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessep: You can't handle the truth!

The list of truths our profession cannot handle is alarming, and growing day by day: The widening gap between the quality of justice available to the rich and to the poor. The dangerous underfunding of the state court system. The inability of our profession to meet the basic legal needs not only of the have-nots in our society, but also of the middle class. The failure of the U.S. Senate to break through the political logjam and appoint federal judges in the Ninth Circuit. The deteriorating economic foundations of our law schools.

On its own, each of these issues is complex and nuanced but, over time, solvable. Taken together, however, they call into question the legal profession's collective ability to perform our most fundamental responsibility, which is to provide justice.

Exhibit 2: From The Paper Chase (1973)
Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman): Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

For thousands of young law students, the only archaic part of Professor Kingsfield's bruising comment is his reference to a pay phone. The rest is all too real. Often burdened with hundreds of thousands of dollars in education debt, many young lawyers nowadays face dim prospects. But for so many of them, the issue is not passing a difficult contracts class or satisfying a demanding professor. It's the realization that although they've done everything they have been asked to do in order to prepare themselves to become lawyers, their call to practice will not be answered. The business of law has changed dramatically, and many new lawyers will have to struggle mightily to secure their place in the new paradigm.

Exhibit 3: From The Verdict (1982)
Frank Galvin (Paul Newman): We say, Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true. And there is no justice: The rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become ... a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims ... and we become victims. We ... become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And 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. See, those are just symbols of our desire to be just. They are ... in fact, a prayer: a fervent and a frightened prayer. ... If we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And act with justice.

What Frank Galvin clearly understands here is that in a very real sense those charged with doing justice are all the law that we have. And that's what we need to think about when we look at those who wear the mantle of justice in California.

California's Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Attorney General Kamala Harris hold in their hands the quality of the state's day-to-day justice and the administration of our leading legal institutions. Both officials are smart, articulate, hard-working, and deeply committed to the public interest.

And they need to be. The tasks they face are Herculean. In the years to come, the chief justice will have to navigate a financial and political minefield. The judicial branch budget has been especially hard-hit, its political clout in Sacramento is diminished, and the judiciary itself is at times fractionalized.

The attorney general, in turn, leads a department that employs over 1,100 attorneys and 3,700 nonattorney employees. The department has many bright spots, but it is uneven. Harris also faces extraordinarily high expectations generated by her own skills and past successes. A close friend and political ally of President Obama, she was named to Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Together, these two women have the power to improve the lives of countless Californians. They also face the mammoth task of trying to reinvigorate our state's legal system to its proper place as the best in the country.

Far too often, legal dramas in movies and on television portray lawyers as sharklike, cartoonish characters. They also fail to effectively convey what every good lawyer certainly knows to be true - that more often than not negotiation and compromise better serve the client's interest than a long, drawn-out trial. But at their best, Hollywood's fictionalized accounts shed light on the travails, glory, and nobility of the law, and in the process illuminate the soul of our profession. As Atticus Finch (or should I say Gregory Peck?) reminds us:

"Our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system - that's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!"

Dan Grunfeld, a partner at Morgan Lewis in Los Angeles, heads its West Coast litigation practice.

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