GPSolo Magazine - Oct/Nov 2003

The Celluloid Lawyer

Members of the jury, while I hope you find the upcoming trial interesting, in all likelihood it won't be very exciting. Both attorneys know what most of the witnesses
are going to say, have gone over the exhibits to be admitted, and discussed the law to be applied with the judge. There probably won't be any big surprises; this isn't like TV or the movies. . . ."

I have represented clients in jury trials for 25 years now and something along the line of the above has become a standard part of my opening statement. Just once I'd like to be in a trial as exciting as in the movies or as portrayed on the tube. There are small triumphs and disasters, but so far nothing that would be of much interest to persons beyond my partners or immediate family.

Growing up in Chicago, I regularly watched a show on TV called Family Classics, which weekly played movies for all ages. I don't think the show has been on for years. When our children became school aged, we instituted our own "family classic" night. On Sunday evening, if homework was done, we would watch a movie I had rented of my choosing that I thought they should see. I noticed through the years that many of my favorite movies had legal themes or scenes, whether in a courtroom or depicting some other government process.

Books have been written about movies and trial strategies portrayed therein. I have attended excellent continuing legal education seminars where speakers have used film clips to show proper and improper tactics demonstrated by lawyers in the movies. I will not attempt to parrot those efforts in this article, nor try to presume to pen a resource work like Movies on Trial by Anthony Chase or Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies by Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow, written about lawyers and legal scenes in the movies, but I will reflect on those films that made an impression on me, and hopefully my children, through the years.

What more powerful scene is there than the late Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, passionately pleading for Tom Robinson's life. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) stands the test of time. Before we watched it on "family classic" night, we first had to overcome the kids' objection to an old black-and-white movie; then there is the kind of spooky Boo Radley (a very young Robert Duvall) part of the movie. But the movie really held all of our attention, and Peck gives every lawyer an example of professional demeanor and integrity that all of us wish we could follow.

I sprung Jaws (1975) on the kids when they may have been too young-it is still a very scary movie. When I first saw it at a movie theater, I was afraid to swim even in a pool for a while, and I was in college at the time! How does the law come into play? The hero Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is the town cop; the mayor (Murray Hamilton) overrules him and challenges his authority and jurisdiction: a little painless lesson in administrative law.

Of course we had to watch the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which provides lessons on our congressional process still instructive today. Jeff Smith (James Stewart), a naive freshman senator, exercises his right to filibuster against the Taylor mob and its handpicked senator (Claude Rains). Smith couldn't do it without the help of his assistant (Jean Arthur), who knows all the rules and coaches him from the visitors' gallery. I was quick to point out to my young daughter that today the senator might be a woman and her assistant, a man.

Spencer Tracy played lawyer roles at least twice in movies we watched. In Adam's Rib (1949) he prosecuted a woman accused of murdering her husband, and Katharine Hepburn played his wife and the lawyer defending the woman. This is a comedy (!) and leaves one wondering whether the current Code of Professional Conduct would allow such circumstances. In Inherit the Wind (1960), Tracy played the Clarence Darrow-inspired role in the movie version of the Scopes "Monkey Trial." While the courtroom scenes are pretty good, the movie didn't hold the kids' interest very well.

Another great legal movie that actually has no courtroom scene is 12 Angry Men (1957). Other than the now strange fact that there are no females on the jury (or of course in the movie, which takes place completely in the jury room), the movie also stands the test of time—although it also produced initial resistance from the kids because it was not filmed in color. Henry Fonda's performance as Juror No. 8 is right up there with those of Stewart and Peck and Tracy.

Two movies came out in 1992 that have great courtroom scenes—and fared well on family movie night. My Cousin Vinny has been used by numerous trial educators as a demonstration of excellent cross-examination technique. Vinny (Joe Pesci) blossoms before our eyes from a bumbling neophyte lawyer to a canny inquisitor relying on his street instincts. The judge (Fred Gwynne of The Munsters and before that-for those of us who are really old —Car 54, Where Are You?) is upright, stuffy, and very Southern, but ultimately fair. The prosecutor (Lane Smith) isn't even a bad guy and is portrayed as ethical and honest.

Also that year, an average offering contained one of movies' best courtroom confrontations (in my opinion): A Few Good Men, which made "You can't handle the truth!" another Jack Nicholson trademark line to go along with "Here's Johnny!" from The Shining (1980). However, it's tough to imagine a good lawyer taking the risks and playing the bluffs the Tom Cruise character does. Also, in a verbal exchange that will grate on any trial lawyer, Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) exposes her ignorance of proper trial tactics and leaves the judge no choice but to damage her client's case by emphasizing the expertise of the opposing witness:

Galloway: We renew our objection to this witness's testimony.

Judge: Overruled.

Galloway: I strenuously object.

Judge: Overruled! Counselor, I have ruled on your objection. This witness is an expert and may give his opinion.

As primarily a defense litigator, I have lived in desperate fear during my career that the case I was trying would end like James Mason's in The Verdict (1982), where the jury sends out a note asking if it can award Paul Newman's client more than the million dollars he had asked for in his closing argument. That hasn't yet happened to me; if it does, I guess that would make for a much more "exciting" case than I customarily predict in my opening statement.

Joseph D. O'Connor practices law with Bunger & Robertson in Bloomington, Indiana. He can be reached at


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