chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
November 14, 2018 Articles

Words of Wisdom for Young Lawyers from . . . Patrick Swayze?

There is no greater movie to teach life lessons, including in the practice of law, than Road House.

By Jon Blumenthal

Lawyers love movies, and lawyers of every ilk romanticize them. Almost any lawyer can name a movie or television show that inspired her: L.A. Law, A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde. It is possible, though, that there is no greater movie to teach life lessons, including in the practice of law, than Road House.

In 2015, the New York Post reported that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) is requiring its officers to view a scene from the movie Road House in which a bouncer, played by Patrick Swayze, instructs his staff to “be nice, until it’s time to not be nice.” Apparently, this is one of the tactics that the NYPD is taking in response to the events surrounding the death of Eric Garner, a man who was allegedly held in a chokehold and died as police tried to arrest him.

If you’ve seen Road House (and if you haven’t, you need to), you know the story. Dalton, the undersized bouncer with the philosophy degree from NYU and the heart of gold, heads to small-town Missouri to clean up the Double Deuce, a seedy bar with potential in Jasper, Missouri. Jasper, of course, is “controlled” by the sinister Brad Wesley. Dalton and Wesley battle for the soul of the Double Deuce and the town of Jasper. Pure gold.

When you get right down to it, Road House should serve as a primer for every graduating law student and new lawyer. Established lawyers can learn a thing or two from Dalton, too. Some practice lessons from Road House follow.


“[N]ever underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.”

After Dalton takes some time to observe the Double Deuce, he unleashes his rules of bouncing to the crew at the Deuce. Any primer for young lawyers must start with those rules. The first: “[N]ever underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected.”

Truer words for a lawyer were never spoken. Whether it’s a case, a lawyer, or even a judge, never underestimate your opponent. You may work for a silk-stocking firm. You may dress in hand-tailored suits and $150 ties. You may eat at better restaurants and have more victories than the average lawyer. But never underestimate your opponent.


“Pain don’t hurt.”

“Pain don’t hurt” remains perhaps the classic line from Road House. Dalton, after being attacked by rowdy bargoers, needs stitches in the local emergency room. The gorgeous doctor, played convincingly by Kelly Lynch, asks Dalton if he wants an anesthetic. Dalton’s response: “Pain don’t hurt.”

The practice of law can be tough even under the best of circumstances. There are long hours and difficult clients. Tough cases are sometimes lost. Confrontation can be a daily part of a law practice. To thrive in the practice of law, lawyers need to endure the inevitable pain and maintain a positive attitude. During the especially tough times—for instance, preparing for and conducting a trial or a big closing, it is useful to remember the line of legendary cooler Wade Garrett (played by Sam Elliott): “I’ll get all the sleep I need when I’m dead.” (Note that we don’t actually recommend waiting until you’re dead to catch up on sleep, but we do acknowledge that sleep can be at a premium when your practice is at its busiest!)


Don’t steal (or borrow) from the till.

Soon after arriving at the Double Deuce, Dalton eyes Wesley’s nephew, Pat, generously helping himself to cash from the register. It should go without saying—but is worth repeating—that the easiest way to get disciplined or disbarred is to mishandle client funds. Always be sure to follow the rules of ethics when handling client funds, and maintain a proper trust account when accepting client funds.


“[B]e nice, until it’s time to not be nice.”

This lesson, which Dalton impressed upon the bouncers at the Deuce, has been incorporated into the NYPD’s training program, and it is an important lesson for all lawyers. Civility and collegiality are rapidly declining assets in a practice that used to be marked by professionalism. Now, a “win at all costs” mentality can run rampant in some people’s practices.

I will never forget a lesson that I learned from my mentor in my first week of practicing law. I was asked to write a demand letter on behalf of a client. I thought that I had done a great job of writing the letter, but instead the senior partner asked me, “Why are you being such a *&^%?” Honestly, it never dawned on me not to be. After all, I was a lawyer. Wasn’t it my job to roll up my sleeves and win the battle?

We all need to advocate tirelessly for our clients, and there are times when we need to win at most (not all) costs. However, a win for your client can often be achieved with collegiality and, often, even friendliness. There is a reason that the saying “It’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar” exists: it’s because it is often true—even in the practice of law.


“I got married to an ugly woman. Don’t ever do that. It just takes the energy right out of you.”

This piece of advice from store owner Red Webster is useful for our purposes if amended slightly: whether you’re a man or a woman, it doesn’t matter what your spouse looks like; but for a lawyer, it helps to have a spouse who is supportive, understanding, and willing to be an active part of your professional life. The practice of law is hard. The choice of a good spouse can make it a lot easier.


“Nobody ever wins a fight”—but if you have to go to war, remember, “[i]t will get worse before it gets better.”

When Doc asks Dalton if he ever wins a fight, Dalton wisely answers, “Nobody ever wins a fight.” While we get paid to win (and it’s important to win), don’t underestimate that, many times, it can be more valuable for your client to avoid a dispute and achieve common ground. Mediation is an underutilized tactic that can bring good results without going to war.

Of course, when Dalton goes to war to save the Double Deuce, he tells the bar’s owner, “It will get worse before it gets better.” When “going to war” in a lawsuit, the same advice often applies to your client. Lawyers need to provide clients with a road map, strategy, and ballpark cost estimate for litigation so that clients can understand that litigation is costly and time-consuming—even long before a trial begins.


“It ain’t the money you understand, but if I don’t charge you something, the Presbyterians around here are likely to pray for my ruination.”

This is Emmet’s comment to Dalton when he rents Dalton a quaint barn in which to reside in Jasper. This is also good advice for young lawyers. In other words, be careful of giving away your services or undercharging for your services. It is important to provide pro bono advice. But for clients who can afford to pay for (and should be paying for) your services, it can be a dangerous habit to be habitually afraid to bill or to undercharge. Set a fair rate, clearly state your rate to your client in the form of a written engagement letter, and be sure to implement proper billing and collection procedures.


“You got insurance, don't you?”

When Wesley destroys the local car dealership to take out his wrath on Dalton, Red asks this question of the owner. All practicing lawyers need to make sure that they have the proper amount of malpractice coverage and should review their coverage with a professional on a periodic basis. Lawyers make mistakes. The best lawyers admit their mistakes, correct them if possible, and carry proper insurance just in case.


“There's always barber college.”

This is Dalton’s advice to a fired bouncer with a poor disposition for the job. Similarly, the practice of law is not for everybody. If you are in law school or a new lawyer, be sure that you are willing to put in the hard work and dedication that it takes to succeed. The practice of law is a very rewarding profession for those willing to work hard and advocate for their clients. But life is too short to do something that you don’t love.

Jon Blumenthal is a real estate and corporate attorney at Baird Holm in Omaha, Nebraska. This article is reprinted by permission of the author and the Nebraska State Bar Association from Jon Blumenthal, “Road House for Young Lawyers,” 21:5 Nebraska Lawyer 91–92 (Sept./Oct. 2018).

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).