Law on the Silver Screen: The Movies and TV Shows That Got It Right

I’m acquainted with a guy who used to be a trumpet player. He says that nothing drives him crazier than watching a TV show or movie where someone is supposed to be playing the trumpet, but they’re either holding it in the wrong hand or their fingers have nothing to do with the music they’re supposed to be playing. Nobody else in the room cares or notices, but to my friend, the lack of authenticity is a distraction.

Lawyers frequently run into a similar problem with dramatic depictions of the legal profession. For those of us who have made our living in the courtroom or the boardroom, some of the on-screen portrayals of what goes on in the practice of law are so unrealistic as to be laughable—and not in a good way.

But not everything that comes out of Hollywood is like that. Through the years, there have been some dramatic productions that have come pretty close to the ring of authenticity. Here are a couple of my personal selections.

The Defenders, a TV show that aired from 1961 to 1965, starred E. G. Marshall as Lawrence Preston, a determined and conscientious defense attorney who was assisted by his son Kenneth, played by Robert Reed. Like its main character, the show didn’t shy away from the tough issues of the day. Various episodes depicted Lawrence Preston defending a conscientious objector, a Civil Rights protestor, a doctor who helped a patient commit suicide, a schoolteacher fired for being an atheist, an abortionist, and other characters representing issues that were not common prime-time fodder in the early 1960s. The great thing about this show was the way it made the law the actual star. Reginald Rose, who created the series, is quoted as saying, “The law is the subject of our programs: not crime, not mystery, not the courtroom for its own sake.” In other words, The Defenderscould be as enigmatic and ethically challenging as real life—which gave it a high degree of authenticity.

The 1999 movie A Civil Action, starring John Travolta as Jan Schlictmann, a hard-charging plaintiff’s attorney who gets in way over his head, did a nice job of depicting the real-life consequences when lawyers let their egos get in the way. Schlictmann and his small firm mount a class-action lawsuit against a trio of corporate giants accused of polluting the groundwater with toxins that are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several children. The movie, by the way, is based on the actual 1986 case Anderson, et al., v. Cryovac, Inc., et al., in which residents of Woburn, Massachusetts, sued Beatrice Foods, W. R. Grace and Company, and UniFirst. In the movie, Travolta’s character becomes obsessed with winning at all costs and refuses a $20 million settlement offer. He ends up bankrupting his firm when a key ruling goes against him. By the way, in the actual case, the EPA was able to build on the unsuccessful suit, eventually forcing the defendants to pay for the cleanup of the land and groundwater in Woburn. But all this was too late for Schlictmann, who spent several years paying off the debt he incurred in bringing the case. In other words, in real life, the good guys don’t always win. Sad, but authentic.

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