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Daily Journal
     June 8, 2020      #98-160 KDJ

Dennis Marek: The 'first thing we do' 

By Dennis Marek

As I leave my profession as a trial lawyer, I stop to consider that profession and its standing in 2020 as opposed to 1970 when I first began to practice. Think of that phrase. We practice. Do we ever become proficient? Then again doctors practice as well. So perhaps that word has a different meaning in the professional world.

My title comes from the love-hate relationship lawyers have with the rest of the world. Hollywood loves lawyers, as does TV. Think of all of the movies and series fodder that lawyers have given to the entertainment world. But not always were we loved. Thus my title today. Henry VI, Part 2, by William Shakespeare. Says, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Dickens didn’t treat us much better nor even did John Grisham. But wait. There is hope. Along came Harper Lee and the universally loved Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.’’

While many imagine the lawyer as an ambulance chaser or criminal spokesperson, this Atticus Finch, emerged in the book and the movie as a man of the truth and courage. Here, justice was the end goal not a large piece of some juicy injury settlement.

Last week, the Illinois State Bar Association was having a contest to find the best fictional lawyer from film and novel. As I write this, the two leading candidates were Perry Mason and Vincent Gambini. Who is this second guy, you ask? Well, remember, lawyers are voting. We all know Erle Stanley Gardner’s Parry Mason, played for years on our TV screen by Raymond Burr. But the rival fictional lawyer, Vincent Gambini, came from the movie My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci. His role was that of a Brooklyn lawyer going to Alabama to save his nephew and a friend from trumped-up murder charges. This “family” lawyer, with no trial experience, keeps you laughing from start to finish.

I had to watch it again last night, though it was made some 30 years ago. We northerners often believe that Alabama law and its citizens haven’t changed much. Here, the stereotypical Alabamans and the Brooklynese Pesci give us the tale of how even a fledgling upstart lawyer can hit victory with the right arguments, a bit of luck, some hard work, and a flamboyant fiancée/assistant.

With that in mind, I decided I would search the realm of fictional lawyers for my favorites. There is no shortage of candidates. If you look for the most courageous, Atticus Finch cannot be topped. Right up there as well is Jake Brigance, John Grisham’s Southern lawyer in “A Time to Kill,’’ confronting racial realities that the laws of the South do not seem to address. This was Grisham’s first novel, and in my opinion, his best. It will also be relevant in the coming weeks and months. The movie loses little in its presentation. It is good and focuses on fairness vs. prejudice and anger.

From an historical perspective, the character-lawyer Henry Drummond comes in with flying colors as well. In the movie, “Inherit the Wind,’’ a national legend comes to Tennessee to defend a high school teacher charged with teaching evolution to his students. Based on a real event, Spencer Tracy gives a riveting performance as the defense attorney defending a teacher for having an opinion different from the rest of the Bible Belt population. In real life, the trial was Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryant, a three-time presidential candidate, and became known as The Scopes Monkey Trial. The basis of the suit was religious principal versus evolutionary beliefs and ended with a misdemeanor guilty verdict. But the performances of these two actors with their arguments are enough to put both of these fictional characters in the top ten.

“Compulsion,’’ another movie set in the 1920’s, starred Orson Welles as the aging defense attorney. Again this is based on a true story in Chicago of two rich and privileged young men murdering one Bobby Franks. The families of Leopold and Loeb hired the best lawyer in the country, Clarence Darrow, to save their sons. It soon becomes clear that a not guilty verdict was not the point of this skilled lawyer’s defense, but rather the saving of the lives of these two young men from the electric chair. As in real life, the arguments against executions ring deep into one’s heart, especially in a time when every state in the union had a death penalty. Darrow’s arguments were often later quoted by defense attorneys facing a trial with a death penalty as a possible sentence.

Not to be outdone, one can only marvel at the courtroom skill and drama in “Anatomy of a Murder’’ where Jimmy Stewart is pitted against George C. Scott. Even the beloved star of Patton makes a mistake and the world learns that you never ask a question in cross-examination unless you already know the answer.

Who cannot love Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict?’’ Here, an alcoholic lawyer finds the dream case along with self-redemption. As most know, I was generally a defense attorney. When the line came out from the jury during deliberation, “Can we award more than what the plaintiff attorney asked for?” my heart stopped. Can a defense attorney ever foresee a verdict larger than what the plaintiff asked for?

Rounding out the favorites, there is always Spencer Tracy as the judge in “Judgment at Nuremberg.’’ Or how about Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich in “Presumed Innocent?’ Let’s not forget the women. Glenn Close as Patty Hewes in “Damages’’ was a ruthless attorney, as was Calista Flockhart as “Ally McBeal.’’

There are so many to choose from but for me, if I were on trial for murder, I would pick Atticus Finch with Henry Drummond as second chair. In the real world, however, I would search high and low, ask people who used a lawyer how he or she did in combat, and would they use that lawyer again? I don’t think I would rely on highway billboards that only show that the lawyer has a higher advertising budget and not his or her batting average in trial. Then again, the lawyer in a movie or TV show can finish the scene and ask to re-shoot it because he or she messed up in the presentation. No such luck if you are in real life. You just have to live with that mistake. Real life in the court room can be more dramatic than the commercial performance.

Dennis Marek can be contacted through the Daily Journal at editors@daily-journal.com or through his personal email at dmarek@amb-ltd.com

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