Order in the Court: Worst On-Screen Lawyers

 Being a lawyer I’m a bit sensitive to the way lawyers are perceived.  If it is Republicans blaming us for the ills of the healthcare industry – I still don’t see the causal link – then it’s movies and TV making us all out as blood-sucking ambulance chasers – a la Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter.

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I have a sense of humor.  My favorite attorney ever is Barry Zuckerkorn from Arrested Development, who’s greatest and most effective act for his client is the ability to recognize that the incriminating photo found on his client’s cell phone is not a map of Iraq but actually is a picture of a man’s scrotum, therefore holding off the charges of treason until another day.

No, what I don’t have much of a sense of humor about, though, are those times when a lawyer in a film is actually lionized by the public, for his great grandstanding gestures, or even his nobility, when he should really be vilified for his utter incompetence.

What follows, then, are Nine of the Worst On-Screen Lawyers.  Some are a bit more obvious to understand, others might take a trained legal mind to spot the Worst-ness:

9.  Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), The Verdict

Personal-injury attorney’s tend to get a bad rap for just being a bunch of ambulance chasers and I think a good deal of this reputation is earned.  Still, just as much of it is unearned and tends to be implied upon an attorney by characters seen in films, like Frank Galvin. 

At his best Galvin is seen trolling for clients at funeral homes – paying off funeral directors for the access – and at worst lets his alcoholism impair his judgment such that he no longer views cases in terms of his client’s best interest but in terms of how it will redeem him.  This means that even though it is in his client’s best interest to get a settlement to pay for the long-term care that will see out her life, he rejects valid settlement offers and insists on pushing the case to trial, improperly introduces evidence – including excluded testimony – and then gives a closing argument that might, at best, be called inflammatory.  Though in the end he may be morally in the right, the fact that he wins a massive jury award means nothing as it’s likely the verdict would be reduced or overturned on appeal.

Of course, given the dirty tricks his opposing counsel pulls throughout the film, including using a woman to have sex and spy on Galvin, maybe Galvin isn’t all that bad.

8. Jan Schlichtman (John Travolta), A Civil Action

My first day of law school – okay, it was really my third day, because we did a whole lot of orientation activities over the weekend before the first day of actually sitting in a classroom – my Torts professor showed the class about thirty minutes of A Civil Action.  I’d seen it before and thought it was a hell of a bummer – the quick and dirty synopsis is that it’s Erin Brokovich, minus the happy ending.  Though I’d noticed it before, watching the film again then I was struck at just how the simple fact of choosing one attorney over another could wreak havoc on a given case, to the point of ruining it for the client, who’s only fault was in choosing their representation.

We most come to expect that a good attorney can win any case, and I suppose it’s possible – I’m thinking of the prosecutor in The Thin Blue Line, convicting an innocent man – but in most instances, the cases before us are won or lost long before we get to court.  Generally the attorney has very little impact because the case is case and wins or loses on its merits, not the attorney’s.  Sometimes, though, a case can be won or lost on more than its merits, only usually it’s not an exceptional attorney turning a loser into a winner, it’s an attorney turning a modest winner into a big loser.  Schlichtman is just one such attorney.

Whether blinded by his own hubris and intention of gaining a landmark judgment numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars – premised on a case that’s pretty shaky to begin with – Schlichtman forgets to attend to the interests of his clients and actively sabotages them all in the interest of his own vanity and outsized sense of moral outrage.  In doing so he rejects a very nice settlement offer from one of the defendants who turns right around and is dismissed from the case for lack of a causal link between the company’s actions and the supposed harm.  Perhaps justice was served in that instance – it was a shaky case, after all – but a lawyer represents his clients interest and there’s nothing like screwing that over in favor of your own.

7.  Arthur Kirkland(Al Pacino), …And Justice for All

In the twisted reality of the movie Al Pacino plays an attorney who somehow manages to come to defend a judge from a rape charge after being held in contempt of court for earlier trying to punch the very same judge – let’s just say there’s an element of blackmail involved in the representation.  Client and attorney clearly do not like one another, made worse by the fact that the client is guilty as hell and when the client – the judge – makes a joke about wanting to rape the victim again, Pacino loses it and tells the jury in his already-patented Al Pacino way: “My client, The Honorable Henry T. Fleming, should go right to fucking jail; the son of a bitch is guilty!!!”  This, of course, leads to the whole “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial’s out of order!” speech, easily the most memorable thing about this film.

Unfortunately, while the outburst is memorable it’s clearly a massive violation of trust.  Pacino might be morally right in ratting his client to the jury but in doing so he violates every ethic an attorney must hold dear, beginning with attorney-client confidentiality, following up with the right to competent legal help and clearly confidence is impaired when the attorney has outbursts as that.  It’s pretty clear that if Kirkland (Pacino) weren’t already operating under the threat of being disbarred at the beginning of the film, he would be by the time the film came to an end.

6. John Shaunessy (Howard Duff), Kramer v. Kramer

As a family law attorney, seeing the way the attorney handles the case in Kramer v. Kramer, might be the worst for me personally.  If a potential client approached me with the facts of this case, retaining custody for the father would be a slam-dunk.  After all, the mother abandoned the child to the father for months and months and months and only later showed back up when it was convenient for her, neither of which would endear her to any competent family law judge, nor would it scream out for a need for ripping apart the child’s consistent home-environment and placing him with the mother.  Somehow, though, Shaunessy manages to lose the case to the wife, apparently by virtue of the fact that she is a woman and the presumption that even after running off, she’s still better equipped to raise the child.  Put another way, he manages to lose a case where the only detriment to his client is that the client is a male.

Perhaps I’m too hard on this attorney and underestimate the way that women were historically treated as super-beings when it came to raising children – or I’m forgetting that it’s a movie and doesn’t necessarily have to resemble real life – but I don’t think any attorney worth his salt would have had a problem protecting the father in this case and that Shaunessy manages to foul it up makes me cringe.

5. Archie Leach (John Cleese), A Fish Called Wanda

You might as well lump Archie Leach together with Frank Galvin under the heading of attorney’s who are more concerned about their own best interests than their client’s.  In Galvin’s case it was some sense of personal redemption.  Here, though, it’s nothing more than the desire by Leach to shag his client’s girlfriend, Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis), but so great is his desire that the client eventually faces actual jail time for the failings of the attorney.

4. Thomas Mara (Jerome Cowan), Miracle on 34th Street

This one might seem unfair, because the attorney here is actually doing his job to the best of his ability.  But when doing the job means he’s going to have to prove there’s no such thing as Santa Claus – even having to cross-examine his own son about it – has to put him right up there near the top of the heap of worst onscreen lawyers.


3. John Milton (Al Pacino), The Devil’s Advocate

He’s the Devil.  What more needs to be said?

2. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), To Kill A Mockingbird

Disparaging Atticus Finch might be blasphemous to some, seeing as to how the beloved-book won a Pulitzer Prize, the movie won the Academy Award for best actor and Atticus Finch is looked on as some sort of hero for the way he stands up against racism and white-trashism.  But as beloved as he is we really only remember him for his abilities as a father, not his legal skills, which, based on the trial conducted as the centerpiece of the film, are suspect.

The case in question hinges on the testimony of three characters: the white girl who claimed she was raped, her abusive/racist father, and the black man accused of the rape.  To be fair, this being the south in the 1930s it’s safe to say Finch was playing with a stacked deck when he took the case, that no matter what testimony the father and the daughter give the black man will be found guilty by virtue of the fact that he was black.  After all, it was a time and place where even the lowliest of the lay-about, no-good, uneducated, backward, white-trash folk has no problem looking down his nose at black folks and calling them n*****’s to their faces.

But just because the deck is stacked against you doesn’t mean you throw in the towel at the trial without even trying.  At the end of the trial the man might still have wound up guilty or lynched but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a vigorous defense which, for all his integrity, Atticus Finch does not give him.

1. Burt PugachCrazy Love

Not so much a bad lawyer in court – in fact, his life as an attorney hardly seems to come into play at all in the film, which is more concerned with his obsessive/co-dependent/bizarre relationship with Linda Riss.  However, as the defining event of the relationship was Pugach throwing acid into the face of the woman he loves, Pugach qualifies as the number one bad lawyer for two reasons: 1) this was a documentary, not a work of fiction, and 2) that

as the legal side of his brain failed to counsel the emotional side of his brain that such actions were not going to be a good idea he failed to properly advise himself in the one instant where the interests of the client and the interests of the attorney are one and the same.  Under those circumstances, he is obviously the king of the Worst Onscreen Lawyers.



Honorable Mention Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), Michael Clayton

I was torn as to whether to put Arthur Edens on this list.  On the one hand, he does take his clothes off during a deposition.  On the other hand, his actions can best be described as brought on by a deranged mind, which could only be dealt with by medication.  It’s unclear whether he is a perpetrator of bad lawyering.  Still, in the annals of bad onscreen lawyers, Michael Clayton may have the market cornered on bad lawyers so just by way of association Edens is guilty of being a bad onscreen attorney.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lists

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s