LIFESTYLES

The public on lawyers—guilty

Books and movies are giving the legal profession a bad name

PATRICIA CHISHOLM October 11 1993
LIFESTYLES

The public on lawyers—guilty

Books and movies are giving the legal profession a bad name

PATRICIA CHISHOLM October 11 1993

The public on lawyers—guilty

LIFESTYLES

Books and movies are giving the legal profession a bad name

“It’s supposed to be an honorable profession, but you’ll meet so many crooked lawyers you’ll want to quit and find an honest job. Yeah, Mitch, you’ll get cynical. And it’s sad, really. ”

‘You shouldn’t be telling me this at this stage of my career.”

“The money makes up for it. It’s amazing how much drudgery you can endure for two hundred thousand a year.”

—Dialogue from the novel, The Firm, by John Grisham

Few professions have undergone a more profound change in public image than lawyers. And since it is decidedly a change for the worse, many lawyers cringe at the recent popular fiction that has helped to fuel it—and long for the good old days.

The counsel who dominated the classic courtroom dramas of the 1950s and 1960s were astute, hardworking and, above all, incorruptible.

The original Perry Mason TV series, which ran from 1957 to 1966, featured Raymond Burr’s penetrating questions that never failed to secure dramatic confessions. Atticus Finch, the modest, upright

lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, stood up for justice over small-town Southern bigotry as he defended a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl.

But if either were hired by one of today’s fictional law firms, like the Mafia-controlled Bendini, Lambert & Locke in this year’s blockbuster film The Firm, based on Grisham’s novel, their careers would probably end, forthwith. Competent and straight-talking, they could be targets for jealous rivals, as Rusty Sabich was in the 1990 box-office hit Presumed Innocent, based on the 1987 novel by Scott Turow. And taken off guard by sexual advances, they might succumb to lusty partners who would rather lie on their desks than work on them, as is often the case on CBC’s long-running series Street Legal.

In the past, it was the trial itself that made for rivetting entertainment. Burr, who was born in New Westminster, B.C., and died last month at 76, speculated that audiences were fascinated by the uncertainty of the outcome and the dire penalties associated with courtroom dramas. Now, it is the lawyers who are being judged, and the public, it seems, cannot get enough of counsellors

in need of counsel. Grisham, the Mississippi lawyerturned-writer who also wrote The Pelican Brief (soon to be a film starring Julia Roberts), was recently paid an estimated $5 million for the film rights to his next novel—the largest sum ever for screen rights to an unpublished book. Chicago lawyer Turow, author of three best-selling courtroom dramas that feature troubled, envious, incompetent and sexually obsessed lawyers, has earned an estimated $5 million from his books and the spinoff films. In Canada, British Columbia lawyer and writer William Deverell, who created Street Legal, recently completed a novel called Kill All The Lawyers. “For legal thrillers, it’s boom, boom, boom,” says Brian Melzack, owner of the Toronto-based book and video chain Bestsellers. “It’s the single biggest category of books we have.”

Lawyers are not amused. Most say that films like The Firm are a gross exaggeration of reality and that the vast majority of attorneys are dedicated and ethical. That is not, however, what the public appears to believe. A

Maclean’s/CTV poll conducted late last year found that lawyers sit second from the bottom in a ranking of integrity and honesty among seven professions, just above politicians. Now, lawyers are trying to buff up their profession’s

badly tarnished image. Last month, the president of the Canadian Bar Association, Cecilia Johnstone, called on lawyers to help end “lawyer-bashing.” Said an angry Johnstone, who practises wills and estates law in Edmonton: “Admitting you are a lawyer is like saying you have a disease, and these books and movies have made the problem very much worse” (page 70).

It may be impossible, however, to stop a trend driven by a literary and film phenomenon. Grisham has become the fastest-selling writer in history—since 1992, more than 25 million copies of his four novels have gone into print—by capitalizing on the public s thirst for bad news about lawyers. In The Firm, almost all of the first three chapters are taken up with a portrait of greed: how much will be earned by a new young lawyer, his bonuses, perks, low-interest loans and vacations. The Client, Grisham’s latest effort, is about an 11-year-old boy, Mark Sway, who inadvertently witnesses the suicide of a deranged lawyer. The lawyer tells Mark a terrible secret about one of his mobster clients and Mark is left to dodge federal prosecutors and the police, who try to make him talk even though his own life is now in danger. Miraculously, Mark finds a lawyer who will work for virtually nothing.

“She’s a lawyer and she doesn’t want money?” “Unusual, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of lawyers on television, and all they do is talk about money. Sex and money. ”

—The Client

But if lawyers are so bad, why does it feel so good to read about them? Turow says that attorneys are targets because they are the new high priests of morality. As such, they write and enforce laws that intrude into more and more areas of private life, like sexual conduct—only to fall short of those standards themselves. “People like to see the drama of the fallen lawyer played out” says Turow, “because they hate lawyers. And they hate them first because they are powerful, and second because they are dependent on them.”

Many people are also intrigued by the inside look at a highly pressurized profession. Some, like Patricia Lawrence, an unemployed real estate agent in Toronto, are fascinated by the gulf between their previous positive view of lawyers and the portrait of tortured fallibility in Turow’s novels. “When I was growing up, lawyers were gods,” says Lawrence, 55. “But the books show you that they are as flawed as everyone else.” Lawrence says that she is also struck by the perversion of justice depicted in novels like Presumed Innocent. “It’s the brightest lawyer with the best contacts that gets you off,” she says. “The lawyer doesn’t

even want to know if their client did it or not.”

Some lawyers believe that the profession at least partially deserves its mixed reputation. “Lawyers were really knocked off their golden throne by Watergate,” says Turow. “Thirty-three lawyers were indicted and not one had the decency to say, ‘No, Mr. President, this is wrong.’ ” Turow also acknowledges that, as a

breed, lawyers stand apart. “I take note that Mother Teresa is not a lawyer,” he

says. “Generally speaking, people who go to law school are a little shrewder, more aggressive and more manipulative than the average.”

Others go further. Deverell began practising criminal law in Vancouver in 1964. In 1979, he published his first legal thriller, Needles, about the drug trade. Since then, he has written about the practice of entrapment by police officers (High Crimes, 1981) and the business of rock ’n’ roll (Platinum Blues, 1988). He now writes full time in a cedar cabin on North Pender Island, or in his hilltop home in Costa Rica. “I realized after I stopped practising that I probably had treated my clients poorly,” he says. “For the client, the situation is the worst crisis of their lives—bankruptcy or divorce—but for the lawyer, it is one file out of 150. Lawyers need to spend more time explaining things to their clients.” Lawyers also use language that is too complex, partly to keep clients intimidated, Deverell says. “Some lawyers think they can charge more if they use long words.”

If the reputation of lawyers is suffering, so too is their traditional immunity from client rage. For many clients, astronomical fees are the most obvious sign of greed and ineptitude, and they are beginning to strike back. Last summer, lawyers across the country were shocked by the largest reduction in a legal fee ever granted in Canada. Toronto counsel Weldon Green was ordered to reduce his fees of more than $1.7 million to zero after a court found that he had provided no value to his client Copperthome Industries 86 Ltd. of Vancouver.

“Mr. Sabich, you are discharged, I cannot tell you how sorry I am that any of this has taken place. Not even the pleasure of seeing you free can make up for this disgrace to the cause of justice. I wish you Godspeed, ”

He bangs his gavel. “Case dismissed,” he says, and leaves.

—Presumed Innocent

Disgruntled clients may be chagrined to learn that lawyers are even beginning to profit from the public’s disenchantment with their profession. Robert Schipper, an experienced Toronto litigation lawyer, is developing a booming new practice in clients who are su-

ing their previous lawyer for inflated bills. Even he, however, is not immune from attack.

Several years ago, one client became incensed when Schipper informed him that he had no case. The client sent him abusive letters and, arriving at his office, told his secretary that he was going to kill him. Schipper, unseen, slipped into an elevator and called the police.

In their own defence, many lawyers say that clients too frequently confuse their adversary with their adversary’s lawyer. Halifax criminal lawyer Joel Pink recently represented one of the accused in the McDonald’s restaurant murder case, in which three Sydney, N.S., employees were brutally killed in May, 1992. Last August, Pink’s client, Darren Muise, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and was sentenced to life with no chance

of parole for 20 years. “I was forced to live in Sydney under an assumed name because of animosity against the defence counsel,” Pink says. But Pink, who has endured a bomb threat at his home in another case, is philosophical: “As a criminal lawyer, you have to accept stuff like this.”

Ian Scott, a widely respected Toronto litigation lawyer and former attorney general of Ontario, added that clients should also accept certain realities about a lawyer’s role. “Lawsuits are not a tea party,” he says. “People on the other side get offended but they retain you the next time because you were effective.”

In fact, many people respect and like their own lawyer, says Christopher Considine, the Victoria lawyer who represented Sue Rodriguez, the 42-year-old victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease who last week lost her legal bid to be allowed to die through assisted suicide. “The fact is that lawyers work incredible hours—a 60-hour week is average at my firm—and a lot of it is a grind. Sometimes, by the time I’m finished a case, my hourly rate is probably lower than a mechanic’s.” When they are pressed, Considine adds, many people will ac-

knowledge that lawyers are crucial to upholding individual rights and social justice. “They know that in an open and democratic society,” he says, “we need lawyers.” Fiction can be revealing but it remains a world unto itself. Lawyers themselves, like so much else in real life, are infinitely more complex.

“Abby,” Mitch said slowly, staring at the water, “I have a confession to make. ” “I’m listening. ”

“The truth is, I never wanted to be a lawyer anyway. ”

—The Firm PATRICIA CHISHOLM