By Daniel Kwarcinski, Science (Advanced)/Law II
Lawyer – a prestigious occupation that commands respect and evokes responsibility, diligence and intelligence. Why is it then, that lawyers are the most satirised professionals in popular culture? Is it because the stereotype is so deeply imbedded in our psyche? Consequently, should we as law students and law professions strive to amend this image … is it even possible to alter deep set cultural perceptions? It seems popular culture could be responsible for the widespread phenomena of hostility towards the profession. As an aspiring law student, a TV buff, and someone who happened to be binge watching the first season of Suits whilst procrastinating writing this exert, this issue seemed ideal to address. So ladies and gentleman, let’s hunt for answers by taking a journey through the portrayal of lawyers over time, from centuries ago to the modern era.
While reading, I came across a 17th century tombstone epithet: ‘God works wonders now and then – here lies a lawyer, an honest man.’ It screams to the world that honesty is an anomaly in the legal profession. Ouch. But wait…lawyer ridicule goes back even further. The old bard (Shakespeare, as he occasionally goes by) himself fixated on lawyers more than any other profession. Sometimes he subtly took a stab at lawyers– ‘suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery?’ and sometimes a little less subtly ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ What this clearly tells us is that lawyers have been ridiculed since the conception of the legal profession, and that lawyer bashing has evolved into a social pastime.
Unable, or perhaps unwilling to compete with centuries of deep set cultural perceptions, modern media of film and TV have jumped onto this runaway train and ripped the breaks off in the process.
The Simpsons is one of my favourite TV shows, and slightly less prestigious than that honour; remains the longest running scripted primetime television series of all time. The satirical parody of middle class American lifestyle takes a stab at just about every integral part of our lives: family, education, politics, the environment, religion, and of course the most crucial for the purpose of this article - the legal profession. The show’s take on lawyers is encapsulated in the hilariously dysfunctional character of Lionel Hutz. Even though his offices ‘I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm’ rival the legitimacy of law internships I’ve diligently scoured for on the internet, Hutz (un)fortunately represents the sleazy and dubious character that embodies the lawyer stereotype – he is metaphorically (and literally in one of the episodes) an ambulance chasing lawyer. Don’t get me wrong, he has the ‘credentials’ to back up his qualification ‘I’ve attended Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, the Sorbonne, the Louvre,’ and his confidence is something to be admired, promising a free pizza if he doesn’t settle out of court in thirty minutes (makes one think of a method of easing court congestion - should there be Dominos in Queen’s Square?). Alas, it is Hutz’s undeniable commitment to legal ethics, ‘the state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement but … I promise you [one],’ and his strong understanding of courtroom practice ‘I move for a bad court thingy,’ that lets him down. This derisive portrayal of lawyers reflects the clear social cynicism that exists towards the profession. Sadly, despite inherently having the best intent in mind, it only takes one ‘law talking guy’ to paint the profession in bad light. But surely people know it’s a satire, a joke, I hear you think. Perhaps.
But then again. Take Saul Goodman. For those uninitiated into the Breaking Bad phenomenon, Saul personifies the continually regurgitated lawyer stereotype, corrupt as they come - a shady character that you call when you not only ‘want a criminal lawyer … [but when] you want a criminal lawyer’. He ticks all the other boxes as well: flashy meets trashy, overconfidence meets narcissism. All fused together and topped with a fancy billboard, late night TV ads and not to mention a catchphrase to match – ‘one stop shop for all your legal needs … Better Call Saul!’ Breaking Bad writers, with a vice grip on the gristly and unnerving, are smearing lawyers’ reputation like vegemite on toast. And a lot of us do not like how that tastes.
But to see how popular culture has elevated lawyer bashing into an art form, we cannot skip past the movie industry. Again and again lawyers are portrayed as lying and unscrupulous. If you don’t believe me, here is some evidence (if it pleases the court). In Liar Liar, Jim Carrey’s character’s capability to be a successful lawyer is threatened because his ability to lie is unwittingly taken from him. In Rainmaker, Danny De Vito’s character trails through the hospital looking for accident victims, procuring cases by preying on their vulnerability. Let’s not forget Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. We all know he ‘can’t handle the truth.’ How about the consigliere to the Corleone family, attorney Tom Hagen? He is a man who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. And nobody wants to wake up in bed with the head of their favourite horse. Capisce?
Wait. Its gets better… or worse, depending on your perspective (Hmm… worse…much worse). In Devil’s Advocate the successful partner in a prominent law firm is literally Satan. In Jurassic Park, an unpleasant lawyer gets devoured by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Would there be a more desirable death for a lawyer? After all have you heard the joke: What do you call 500 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. You see where I am going with this. We all know that the entertainment industry does very little in half measures, but this is ridiculous, isn’t it?
Just when you thought I was done, one last blow. To add salt to the wound, modern media goes a bit further. In Legally Blonde (I have a sister, just in case you are questioning my tastes in filmography) Elle’s father legendarily says ‘law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious.’ To call a lawyer dishonest, greedy, or even the devil himself is one thing, but ugly? Honestly? It cuts you deep, real deep. I OBJECT!
I guess I cannot completely ignore that there have been portrayals of good lawyers doing good thing, just in case the head honchos in the entertainment industry decide they ‘better call Saul’ and sue me. Well yes, there have been some, but few and far in between, usually cardboard characters that are difficult to recall. See, I’ve drawn a blank (I’ll settle you with a free pizza if you can think of a memorable handful in 30 minutes).
In parting, as insightful as my ramblings have been, I feel I ought to bestow on you a final gamut of wisdom. What we must agree on is that when watching TV and movie portrayals of lawyers, a really thick skin and a sense of humour must be one’s basic prerequisites. After all they say that satire is the highest form of flattery. And since no profession has been satirised more…it’s a good thing. Right? At the end of the day what lawyers really want is to help their clients, to do the best for the right outcome.
Keeping this in mind, Ruth Carter, a US lawyer, offers a poignant take on how lawyers should behave: succinctly put in her statement: ‘Our mantra for 2015 should be: Be a legal badass without being an asshole.’