Friday, October 7, 2011

Legal Drams!

Having seen the 1982 Paul Newman film "The Verdict" it makes me realize just how far off Hollywood is when it comes to portraying the legal profession. Sure, no movie is going to focus on the endless nuts and bolts--long depositions, hours of research, endless motions that get batted back and forth--and the movie will stick to the more dramatic aspects of contentious litigation. (And of course no one will ever focus on the non-litigation side of legal work, because a lawyer researching and drafting a legal opinion for a client is hideously boring to watch onscreen, even if the lawyer is drunk at the time. I'm looking at you, Kentucky Bar Association!) But sometimes you see something so unbelievably wrong that you can't believe the screenwriters didn't have a lawyer on hand to tell them to fix the scene.

Namely, I'm talking about the part where Newman's character is offered a sizable settlement for his client, and turns it down. Now, maybe ethics rules were vastly different in 1982, but any lawyer today that does not even communicate the fact of a settlement offer to their client is going to be a good candidate for disbarment. And it is clear that Newman never told his client before turning it down, because the client later encounters him and punches him in the nose for this. Hell, if it hadn't been onscreen, I'd have punched him in the nose myself.

What other unrealistic events occur in legal dramas?

1) Surprise witnesses. Lawyers are always required to get permission of the court and notify the opposing lawyer before introducing a witness. While witnesses can often be added mid-trial, this should never be a surprise to the opposing counsel, let alone the judge.

2) Judges telling a lawyer he should accept a settlement offer. A judge doing something like this in their own case is likely to not be a judge much longer.

3) The opposing lawyers are always both really good at what they do. There are really a lot of bad lawyers out there practicing. And while the bar exams and qualifications do test one's knowledge of the basic tenets of the law, they don't test one's ability to apply it or even understand procedure. Unless you're taken in by an experienced mentor, you're going to enter litigation with what you remember in first year Civ Pro.

4) Judges making rulings on issues that are not put forth in a motion by one of the attorneys. The judge is just that, a judge--and not an independent finder of fact. (The jury makes findings of fact, while the judge rules on issues of the law--without going into the distinction the point is that in all instances this has to be in response to one side's motion)

5) Jurors making their own independent investigations of the facts. The worst example of this was in "12 Angry Men" when Hank Fonda even brought a friggin' switchblade to the jurors' chamber. Can you say "mistrial"???

6) Navy prosecutors who can't handle the truth. I'm pretty sure they have excellent truth-handling ability.

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