CLE15: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (PH)

by Pamela Henderson on 20/06/2015

No, this is not a review of the day’s events, but the title of Prof. Janine Griffiths-Baker’s inaugural lecture.

Full title:  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Lawyers in Film and Fiction.

Janine is Dean of the Law School, here at Nottingham Law School.  She is just being officially introduced by Prof. David Burdette.  He is promising us an extra-special celebration tonight.  Well, I have a glass of red wine perilously close to my mouse, so provided I don’t knock it over, I’m definitely ready to party.

David’s main personal impression of Janine is apparently as someone who not only greets him when she passes him in the corridor, but smiles at him too.  Well, she hasn’t been here very long (love you really, David).

So why are lawyers and the courtroom so endlessly fascinating for writers and film-makers?  Is it the natural drama of the trial process?  Is it because they deal with extremes of the human condition, with lawyers interacting with people at moments of great stress?  It’s certainly dramatic.

And this is apparently Janine’s hero and inspiration for her own legal career.  She’s keen for us to understand that she was very very young at the time.  He seems to have misled her badly though:

  • Lawyers are passionate about their cases
  • They seek the truth
  • Clients always tell the truth

Um, not always, Janine!

Ahh, Rumpole and Great Expectations, encountered by Janine in the early 1980s, disabused her, though the former still seems to have been somewhat idealistic in his approach.  He did, however, give a more rounded view of criminal practice, especially as he didn’t win all of his cases.  That links back to what we heard from Simao earlier today about the cab rank rule and the professional integrity in securing access to justice even for individuals who the world at large might feel had done little to deserve it e.g. the Timsons family so beloved of Rumpole.  He openly mocks them and their chosen lifestyle, but he still defends them to the best of his ability.

Hmm, a change of tone here, as Janine recites an example of Rumpole making a rape victim’s past sexual history the focus of the inquiry.  The victim, rather than the defendant, finds herself on trial.

This has got me thinking.  Of course, Rumpole was acting in accordance with usual and accepted practice for that time, but I wonder how we would respond if a TV programme did the same today?  Hopefully, very differently from 30+ years ago, though sometimes I wonder just how much progress we have really made.

Janine is now contrasting that with the pecuniary obsession of Mr Jagger, the lawyers in Great Expectations.  He won’t give anyone the benefit of his esteemed advice unless they pay him first.

Ah, here’s the link to the title – some of the lawyers in books and film are good (Petrocelli, Rumpole), some are bad (Mr Jagger), some are ugly (Tom Hagen in the Godfather films).

While Janine was trying to work out whether all lawyers fell into these three categories, along came LA Law.  Well, it did result in record applications to law schools in the US, possibly because research suggests it offered a vision of lawyers who lived luxuriously, with lives full of romance and drama (Meyer, Revisiting LAW Law).  Apparently, it went beyond that, affecting how lawyers dressed and interacted with juries, and even how those juries decided cases. Wow, someone actually got lawyers to change the way they dress!

Can you spot the lawyer in this picture?


Ooh, Mr Jagger is being redeemed, now revealed as a man who has compassion for Estella and can be trusted to keep his client’s secret.  So now we have to move him up to ‘good’ status, but that’s okay, ‘bad’ will not remain empty for long as Janine is about to relegate Rumpole into that slot.  I sure didn’t see that coming!  Evidently, lawyers are very complex individuals and not the simple souls I had hitherto believed.

Did you note the use of ‘hitherto’ there?  That’s just to prove that I’m a real lawyer (a ‘good’ one, of course).

Finally, Atticus Finch, the ultimate ‘good’ lawyer in literature?  Challenge me in the Comments if you disagree.

Oh, Janine has just challenged me herself.  Apparently, even Atticus suffered from ethical lapses.  Let’s hope it’s not contagious, given the number of lawyers in the lecture theatre right now.

Janine’s got the audience in the palm of her hand, by the way.  Not a fidget or bumshuffle in sight.  In fact, my clicky keyboard is proving something of a distraction, even though I took care to position myself right at the back.  Sorry folks!

Janine says that the most difficult subject to teach is legal ethics, but it’s also the most important.  You can try to teach it via codes of conduct, but that’s not enough.  Answers are hard to come by in some situations and we don’t necessarily want students simply to find the answers by searching for an elusive exception. We’re hearing about the attorney/client privilege dilemma faced by Mitch McDeere in The Firm.  The solution is ‘mail fraud’ which I think appeared in the film, but not the original novel.  Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  Anyway, it might have got Mitch out of a professional hole, but it didn’t bring the Crime Family to justice.  So it was a solution, and arguably an ethical solution, but not a particularly satisfactory one.

Janine suggests that film and fiction offer brilliant opportunities to engage students in debate on legal issues and ethics in particular.  They have to think about issues from a personal perspective – what would I do, what are the ethical issues, does the lawyer do the right thing in accordance with the rules and what society would think was just, what is the impact on the lawyer?

To reinforce this, we’re now looking at Kavanagh QC, a man with both good and bad qualities, and dealing with ethical issues in many episodes that can be explored and discussed by students.  I wonder if Amazon has it on DVD?

Yup, it has.

I bet you can find what you need free on Youtube too (I didn’t officially say that).

Janine’s concluding remarks – perhaps life is complicated for fictitious lawyers too!










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