The Paper Chase (1973)

“What I mean is, you really mean something to me, and your class really meant something to me.”

“What is your name?”

I never saw The Paper Chase before law school.  And it’s a good thing, too — otherwise I might have turned down Harvard.  No, for reals, I’m thrilled I never ended up there because I got to be the poster-child for the IIT website instead.

Prettttty cleverrrrr.

Timothy Bottoms plays the mustachioed man-child protagonist, James T. Hart, a 1L at Harvard Law who looks like just the type of guy you’d avoid sitting next to at all costs.

It's probably his eyes.

Hart’s first day of law school doesn’t go so well.  During Contracts, old Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) calls on him to explain the facts of Hawkins v. McGee, remembered by law students as a lesson in why you should never give in to your hand-surgeon’s request for just a smidge of the skin on your chest (it rhymes!)  Totally unprepared and embarrassed, Hart runs straight for the nearest bathroom to throw up, because that’s exactly what everyone does in law school when they get called on and don’t know the answer.

You've been warned.

The fact that Hart came to class totally unprepared and looks like Jeffrey Dahmer’s dad doesn’t stop the other students in his dorm (Harvard Law, apparently, has a six room dorm) from begging him to join their study group.  I never really got into the whole study group thing in law school.  I was far more concerned with the consistency of my bulleting than actual exam prep.  Top of the class?  No.  But you should have seen my bulleting.

Of course, Professor Kingsfield steals the show, and I’m pretty sure that’s the point of the movie.  Even Hart — who is pretty unimpressed by the history of the school and its student body — can’t seem to shake the awesomeness of the old contracts professor.  He decides to focus on Kingsfield’s class, even raising his hand to volunteer answers during class.  That’s pretty a much a cardinal sin in law school.

Back stabber!

Kingsfield, of course, recognizes Hart’s talents and devotion, but never breaks character.  When he rewards Hart with the opportunity to do research for his treatise and Hart is unable to complete the assignment on time, Kingsfield teaches him that his class preparation only bought him an opportunity, nothing more.  Hart’s upset, but he gets it.

The Paper Chase covers a lot of law school motifs — the Socratic method, study groups, pressure, drop outs, swimming in Speedos (wait, that may have just been a 70s theme), outlines, girlfriends, exams — and that alone makes it a complete law school movie.  As a law movie, though, I think it works because of the professor-student relationship.  Seek out a mentor — preferably someone you respect, or maybe just someone you can’t help but admire.  Just don’t expect him/her to remember your name.

Summary Judgment: Now that I’ve seen the quintessential law school movie, I’ve got to ask: just how old are the people at Harvard Law?  I mean, Kent had plenty of non-traditional students, but just about every student in this movie looked like they’d been through law school sixteen times.  John Houseman is hardly the oldest guy in a classroom with Edward Herrmann.  Also, I’ll never understand how people used to outline before computers.  Think of all the bulleting they missed out on.


Filed under 1970-79, Law School

The Verdict (1982)

“Why are you doing this?”

“To do the right thing.  Isn’t that why you’re doing it?”

So I’ve decided to review movies in reverse order by decade, starting with Erin Brockovich (2000-09), moving then to A Few Good Men (1990-99), and now to the 80s with The Verdict.  The next movie will be from the 70s, a decade I had no part of and won’t take the blame for, so I welcome suggestions.

Expectations officially lowered.

We’ll see if the cycle repeats after I hit the 50s, or if I just go random after that (again, suggestions welcomed.)

Anyhoo, this was the second time I’ve seen The Verdict, but I really didn’t remember the details (my wife did and totally ruined it about 34 minutes in, but I digress.)  Paul Newman and his steely blue eyes play out-of-luck trial lawyer, Frank Galvin.  Galvin’s life has been spiraling out of control for awhile.  He’s an alcoholic, smokes, physically abusive, and spends his sober moments wallowing in self-pity.  Also, he’s addicted to pinball.

Unemployment would rock if I owned one of these.

Now I know first-hand how unemployment isn’t exactly uplifting, but GOOD GOD this guy’s sadder than the guys who torched me in the comment section on Above the Law (see? I’m not actually above that.)  I mean, my wife has shouldered a lot of my “there’s no light!” moments in the last few months, but at least I’m not slurping down raw eggs at a pub for breakfast.  Even Rocky kept that in the privacy of his own home.

And now he's a judge.

Galvin’s been handed one last case by his only friend, and former law professor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden).  It’s a medical malpractice suit and Mickey believes Galvin can pretty easily parlay it into a hefty settlement and retire off the contingency fee.  We’re talking $200k, apparently a fortune if you’re either living in 1982 or Dr. Evil.  Galvin’s on board with the plan.  The plaintiff’s family members — absolutely worn out after four years of watching their sister lie motionless in a vegetative coma — are on board.  And the defendants, a Church-sponsored hospital and two well respected doctors, are willing to pay to keep things quiet.

So why doesn’t this case settle?  Is it the doctor who first suggests to Galvin that his co-workers “murdered” the girl by giving her the wrong anesthetic?  Is it Galvin’s misguided attempt at personal redemption – his last chance at going all in instead of settling to live out the rest of his life?

Or maybe he's just stubborn?

I think there’s more going on here.  In a silent and odd scene, Galvin goes to photograph the victim prior to a pre-trial settlement conference.  He figures a few Polaroids will play on the defendants’ pathos and, maybe more effectively, their fear of a jury’s.  In the midst of shooting, Galvin stops and thereafter decides he’s going to represent the victim and not her family.  It’s actually pretty unfair; Galvin’s sort of indifferent to their plight throughout the movie, and assuming they’ve got a power of attorney to bring an action on her behalf (or something, someone help me out here), he is supposed to listen to them, or at the very least let them know about any settlement offers.

I made a similar point in my review of Erin Brockovich, but it came out again here.  Galvin is different from the victim’s family.  He hasn’t been there for four years, standing by her side and watching her slowly deteriorate.  That’s why he’s able see past the unfortunate fact that she’s so difficult to care for and instead see the tragedy that befell her.  Now, he can only guess as to whether she’d rather him fight at trial and try to bring these doctors to justice or just make things easier for her family. Honestly, I think he guesses wrong, but he does pick a side, and that’s the first thing he needs before deciding on whether to accept a settlement offer.

Summary Judgment: Alright, I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t do this movie justice.  There’s simply too much going on.  The dialogue is fantastic throughout (I found myself writing down every line) and the noir cinematography is stunning.  If you haven’t seen it, rent it.  If you have seen it, rent it.  There’s obviously more to say, so I’ll have to revisit this film in the future.  I haven’t even touched the trial or the supporting characters like Mickey or Ed Concannon (James Mason), the brilliant opposing counsel.  Again taking suggestions for the next movie in the comments bar — must be from the 70s, though.  Till’ next time, the keyboard is closed.


Filed under 1980-89, Settlements, Trial, Unemployment

My Day on Above the Law

Re: Consider this…

Re: Considered.

I intend to keep this blog focused on movies, but I was on Above the Law today and that probably won’t ever happen again, so I feel like explaining.

About three weeks ago I was stuck.  Since September, I’d been reaching out to different Chicago-Kent alums throughout Chicago for the purpose of expanding my network.  The common piece of advice I got, whether accurate or not, was that in this economy it’s not what you know but who you know.  So I made a list of all the firms I was interested in, looked for partners that graduated from Chicago-Kent, and emailed them to see if they could meet with me, provide me with some advice, and most importantly, take my resume.

The results suprised me.  I met a bunch of pretty successful partners, and even some managing partners at some of Chicago’s prestigious firms.   The fact that these people bothered meeting me (more often than not a complete stranger) just goes to show that lawyers are actually pretty good people.  Random acts of kindness live on, even in a down economy.

I loved these interviews because even if they didn’t land me a job, they got me out of the house, and god knows I needed that.  But after a few months, the well was drying up.  By January, I’d either met with an alum at a firm already or there wasn’t an alum there.  I started sending out emails to non-alumni, but didn’t receive much of a response.

Around the same time, my in-laws suggested I see a career coach, and figuring it couldn’t hurt, I did.  The session was pretty hilarious and I’m now the proud owner of two “web books,” but the guy gave me a bit of useful advice: don’t be conventional.  Now, his career was in advertising, and advertising covets originality more than law.  Still, I figured what I was doing had led me nowhere so it couldn’t hurt if I tried to be a bit more creative.

I tested the waters with a few cover letters to jobs I didn’t have a chance in hell of landing.  Once thoroughly inebriated with my newfound courage to just write whatever I wanted and push send, I hatched a plan to contact Mark Herrmann, Vice President and Chief Litigation Counsel of Aon.  Mr. Herrmann didn’t go to Chicago-Kent.  He had, however, sent me a signed copy of his book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, while I was a 3L at Kent, in hopes that I’d read it and use my editor-in-chief powers to persuade others to follow suit.  I read it, but if I knew how to persuade anyone, I’d probably be employed.  (The book is terrific, by the way.  And even better, it’s really short.)

I used the book as a backdrop to contact Mr. Herrmann and see if I could get an interview.  I figured my regular five sentence letter about getting advice wasn’t gonna do much for the cause, so I put together a tongue-in-cheek thank-you note.  In it I thanked him and his book for revamping my perspective on law school and work for the better.  And then I blamed him for making me feel compelled to work.  Unemployment’s a lot easier if you don’t actually want to practice law!  I said he could make it up to me by granting me an informational interview.

Now, he wrote his book from the perspective of a curmudgeonly old lawyer who cares more about competence than saying the nice thing.  He shared a dark, sarcastic sense of humor throughout, and I figured he could relate to the thank-you/hate-you note.  Worst case scenario, I never hear from him.  So I wrote the letter and snail-mailed it to him (it’s a lot more difficult to get the email address of corporate counsel) expecting never to hear from him again.

But I was wrong.  To my surprise, he got right back to me.  He immediately explained that he didn’t have a job for me, but that he admired my spunk and would be happy to buy me lunch.  I said I can’t do lunch because I keep kosher, and we settled on coffee (I don’t drink coffee, but mini-golf wasn’t an option.)

About a week before the meeting, he sent me a proposal: what if he used his book, my letter, and our meeting as a topic for his column on Above the Law?  If he couldn’t offer me a job, he could offer me some publicity, which as he put, could be good or could be bad.  Up to that point I had no idea he even wrote for ATL; I stopped following the blog a long time ago because it’s not exactly uplifting stuff for the unemployed.  But, the proposal intrigued me: in my mind, the potential gain in terms of employment outweighed the risk, my friends would be shocked to see me on the front page, and god knows I love the attention.

Mostly, though, it’d be a change.  Sitting around unemployed isn’t fun.  I look for jobs,  I apply to jobs, I volunteer, I interview, I watch tv, I eat potato chips, I rinse and repeat.  And then, every 15th of the month, I spend the remainder of my savings on a stack of student loans just so that I can avoid deferring for one more month, in hopes that I’ll find something within those next thirty days.  It really isn’t fun.  So a change — a change would be appreciated,  even if it meant I’d have to endure the notorious ATL commenters for one day.  (Best one, by the way, was the one claiming I impersonated Mike Borella, a friend who came to my defense in the comments.  I wish I was Mike Borella.  That guy’s awesome.)

So he sent me a draft of the article.  It wasn’t easy to write because neither of us wanted to damage Chicago-Kent’s reputation.  To show that it wasn’t the school’s fault (it really isn’t), we threw in the part about me not finishing at the top of the class.  It’s true: I finished in the top 34% of the class, not even good enough to put on my resume.  During law school, I fluctuated between top 39% at worst and top 27% at best.  But I never cared much for decimals, so I edited the draft and approved it, and off it went.

Last Friday we finally met for coffee and I really had one of the most positive experiences of the job search.  “Positive” because I didn’t just sit there hearing about how I should be doing what I’ve already been doing.  Instead, he treated me as an equal.  I mean, here’s a guy who spent the last 25 years building up an extremely strong litigation reputation for one of the biggest law firms in the world — a VP and chief litigation counsel of an enormous company and author of a terrific book (see, not very persuasive) — and he’s spending his morning listening to me, valuing what I have to say, and answering anything I ask him both candidly and completely.

Tomorrow it’s back to the job boards.  Stuff like this makes it a lot easier.


Filed under Objections

A Few Good Men (1992)

“You’re not suggesting I back off a material witness?”

“If you think you can’t get him, yeah.”

The feedback from my first post was overwhelmingly positive, though any thoughts on what I actually wrote were completely overshadowed by suggestions about which movie I should take on next.  A Civil Action will just have to wait because 100% of the three people who noticed my link on facebook all want to read about A Few Good Men.  Again, another movie I somehow never saw before, but this time I blame the guys who made the trailer — “You can’t handle the truth!” is one of the most quotable movie spoilers ever, second only to “Screw it, I’m your dad.”

"Screw it, I'm your dad."

The film centers on cocky recent Harvard Law grad Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise).  Working as military defense counsel, Kaffee’s been assigned the case of two Marines accused of killing one of their fellow soldiers.  Kaffee’s been out of school only nine months and has already settled over forty courts-martial, which means (a) he’s not about to make any exceptions, and (b) our military has a higher crime rate than Gotham City.

Granted, this guy's in charge.

But after explaining a ridiculously lenient settlement offer, Kaffee’s gets rejected by his clients, who claim they were following orders and won’t take a lesser punishment because that would somehow mean that they weren’t doing the honorable thing (this whole scene makes less and less sense the more I think about it.)  That and a little ribbing by the female lead convinces Kaffee that he should take this case to trial.  If that doesn’t convince you these Marines are in good hands, nothing will.

Demi Moore plays the part of Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway, Kaffee’s underappreciated, higher-ranking, motivational co-counsel/buffoon.  I don’t know how many people followed the whole Ken Levine Blog-Social Network story, but let’s just say 2010 wasn’t the first time Aaron Sorkin made a movie to the detriment of women suffragists everywhere.  Throughout the film Galloway keeps her team of Kaffee and the older, also lower-ranking, token yid Lt. Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), focused on the case.  She’s constantly looking into Kaffee’s eyes, reminding him of the importance of their work, and then screwing things up at just about every opportunity.

Objection! Those jeans are fabulous!

I want to be clear here: I think women deserve better in this movie.  I’m guessing Sorkin didn’t want to make Galloway appear too strong and risk alienating the military-types at the box office, but I can’t explain why he made the only woman in the story so incredibly incompetent.  Galloway starts bumbling out of the box.  During a pre-trial interview with Kaffee and the antagonist, Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson), she just can’t resist insinuating that Jessup gave the order that led to the killing.  In so doing, she not only compromises the defense’s investigation, but turns an otherwise cordial breakfast host into one very hostile witness.

Early on in the trial, she objects to the judge overruling her objection.  I’m sure there’s an evidence rule for how to do that somewhere.  I’m also sure its got a footnote that says “Don’t.”  More significantly, her one witness completely falters on the stand because she’s more deeply committed to making sure he feels comfortable than she is to actually investigating his story.

Pictured: marrying up.

But throughout the film, the defense’s greatest obstacle is overcoming the hostility of their clients and witnesses.  A more complex movie would have focused on hostile clients, but I appreciate that Sorkin at least addressed the issue in the intake interview.  Faced for the first time with two defendants about as stubborn (and interesting) as a brick wall, Kaffee reminds them that, regardless of what they believe, he’s their only friend in the courtroom.  It’s effective because this courtroom is different — here, the jurors wear uniforms and it’s a lot easier for the defendants to convince themselves they’re in a safe place.

The real drama, though, comes from the two hostile witnesses: Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland) and Col. Jessup.  They absolutely despise Cruise’s character.

Though maybe not as much as him.

As model soldiers, they’ve also earned the respect and support of just about everyone in the courtroom.  Common sense says treat them respectfully and elicit whatever useful testimony you can without sinking to their level, or worse, badgering them.  Well, the climactic scene in A Few Good Men doesn’t happen if common sense prevails.  The courtroom is a battlefield — come to fight or don’t come at all.

Summary Judgment: A Few Good Men is as much a military movie as it is a law movie and, consequently, the last five minutes are ridiculously literal.  As usual, Jack Nicholson kicks butt, but he’s only in four scenes, three of which are really quite minor.  Unlike Erin Brockovich, it’s ALWAYS over the top, but it includes a star-studded cast and doesn’t feel all that dated for a law movie from 1992.  I simply can’t wait to see the sequel!


Filed under 1990-99, Criminal Law, Trial

Erin Brockovich (2000)

“Basically, it all comes down to what this one judge decides?”

“Basically, yeah.”

Just saw Erin Brokovich for the first time!  This movie made a lot of headlines when it debuted in 2000 but I avoided seeing it until tonight because Julia Roberts has too many teeth.  I’m deathly afraid she might just jump out of the screen and bite me.  Still, you can’t run forever and that was certainly the case during halftime of tonight’s Bulls victory over the Heat.  Like most self-respecting men, I flipped from Rich King to Lifetime and there she was—Erin Brokovich, telling off the guy from Thank You for Smoking.

This is what happens to people who smoke.

I bonded with Erin pretty quickly and not just because I’ve always wanted a perm.  No, it was the job search.  What’s that phrase—misery loves unemployed people?  After Erin’s bumbling job interview in the opening scene one thing was clear: “Erin Brockovich needs a job.  David Freedman needs a job.  Erin, meet David!  We’re gonna be best friends!” Fifteen minutes later she lands a job in a law firm working as a paralegal and I’m left feeling totally betrayed, but hey, that’s a sign of economic recovery right?  Wait, when does this movie take place?

She's just the type to stab you in the back. Or bite your ear off.

I love how Erin lands the job by just marching into the office and demanding the lawyer hire her because dammit, she needs a job.  Now I finally understand what my grandmother was trying to say while I drove her to Target (she got a coupon for free eggs!):

Dah-vid, I always imagined you’d work for the baseball players and movie stars [because I’m her grandson], but if you want to work for one of those big firms like Mayer Ellis, you just go to their office, give them your resume and say “I WANT A JOB.

If only they didn’t call security.

Erin dresses differently from the paralegals in the office, ditching sweaters and long skirts for a wardrobe slightly more Jersey Shore.  And although even I save my tube tops for firm picnics, one scene in the film where her new boss confronts her about the dress code truly resonated with me.  I’m Jewish, so I’ve always worn a yarmulke to work.  No one’s ever said anything to me about it — no, that would be quite awkward and knowing me, I’d probably find a way to make it even more awkward.

Problem solved!

I realize, though, that there was a time not so long ago that people a lot smarter and braver than me had to take off their yarmulkes or even change their last names to get a job.  Erin wins this battle, but her fashion sense noticeably changes over the course of the movie so it’s unclear who wins the war.  (Preachy.  I’m aware.)

My favorite character in this movie is, of course, the actual lawyer, Ed Masry (played hilariously by Albert Finney.)  Ed’s a general practitioner, who together with his team of 400 paralegals conquers everything from auto accidents to real estate closings.  He’s run this firm for a long time and seems very busy (although only moderately successful.)  His dream is my dream—to retire—except he’s a bit further along than me.  The firm is so high volume that Ed totally overlooks the potential goldmine of a lawsuit in a pro bono case he took on.  Take your own lesson from that.

Once on board, Ed becomes the voice of reason throughout the lawsuit, which isn’t easy given that Erin is a handful and the facts are heavily sympathetic towards the plaintiffs.  Ed succeeds because he’s been around and knows his limitations.  I’m shocked that he continuously gives Erin so much responsibility and eventually concludes that he can’t take it alone.  That’s a humbling realization for someone who has worked for so long and so hard.  His demeanor towards a continuously growing and uninformed group of plaintiffs is even more impressive; in a town hall meeting he saves the case by reminding them why he’s the lawyer in the room and not bending to the moment.

As I watched this movie, I found myself falling into the “Erin Brockovich trap” more than once.  Erin’s not a lawyer.  She sees the victims of a malicious corporate cover-up and she’s psyched to go to trial and raise hell.

"Julia HUNGRY!"

Ed reminds her that even when there aren’t two sides of a story, there are still two parties in a case. It only seems like a slam dunk because she’s invested a year of her life, met all of the plaintiffs, and memorized their stories, phone numbers, etc.  A trial judge, though, won’t be nearly as invested.

Summary Judgment: Erin Brockovich is funny, poignant, never over the top, and difficult to spell.  Julia Roberts still has a lot of teeth, and I’m not sure we can ever forgive her for Notting Hill, but this was certainly a step in the right direction.  On a sort of embarrassing/depressing note, before I saw this movie I thought Erin Brockovich was a lawyer.  (wait, she’s not?)   The movie portrays her as a poorly trained law clerk.  So does this mean you don’t have to go to law school and pass the bar to practice law?  You think about that while I catch up on Drop Dead Diva.


Filed under 2000-09, Class Action, Toxic Tort, Unemployment