We never said being a lawyer was going to be easy (because it's really not). We also never said it was going to be cool or interesting, either, but do you know who did? Hollywood. And even though we've been cool with Hollywood's lies before (the crappiest Indiana Jones movie is still a hundred times more exciting than the most interesting real-life archaeologist), when it comes to making movies about lawyers, Hollywood's goofs are so inexcusable that we wonder if anyone even bothered to Google "lawyer," "law" or "real life" before starting their screenplay ...
In A Time to Kill, Samuel L. Jackson is on trial for murdering the two racist white men who raped and beat his 10-year-old daughter in rural Mississippi. Jackson hires hot-shot lawyer Matthew McConaughey to defend him in court and, while Jackson did kill those dudes, Matt's plan is to argue "not guilty" on the grounds of temporary insanity. Whether he has a case or not is irrelevant, because the real problem is that this movie is set in rural, racist Mississippi, and getting a fair trial in a town full of active participants in the KKK is fairly difficult (and even non-clansmen were still, like, casual racists). Despite all of that racism, McConaughey beats rival lawyer Kevin Spacey and convinces the jury of Jackson's innocence with a heart-wrenching closing statement. Boom: Lawyered.
We've already discussed how idiotically illegal that heart-wrenching statement is in the film, but in terms of courtroom procedure, that's really up to Kevin Spacey to object to it, and he's not portrayed as anything more than a slime ball trying to up his street cred. McConaughey, on the other hand, is supposed to be a pretty sharp lawyer, even though he seems so ... Matthew McConaughey-esque.
"I think I know just what this courtroom needs: a little more law!"
Early on, McConaughey realizes that with the deep-rooted racist sentiment in Mississippi, there's no way in hell a black man will get a fair trial, even if that black man is Samuel L. Jackson. Not wanting to "pull a Finch," he wisely submits a motion to change the venue of the trial, which the judge, who is being pressured by the KKK, summarily denies. Distraught about this, Matt mopes for a while before Sandra Bullock (his spunky, ambitious legal assistant) points out that the judge overlooked a legal precedent in the change of venue motion. Armed with this new information, McConaughey resubmits his motion ... and has it denied again.
"Damnit. I thought I had all the law. He just lawyered the pants off of me."
Now, the first time the judge denied McConaughey's request to move the trial (without checking the legal precedents), it was a screw-up on the part of the judge. When a judge fails to consider all the evidence in a legal motion, this is called a "reversible error" (which, in legalese, means the judge done crapped him the bed something fierce). Bad enough, in fact, for the whole show to be declared a mistrial, meaning the defendant gets a brand-spanking-new trial. McConaughey has two options: 1) tell the judge that he made a mistake and give him a chance to correct it or 2) don't tell the judge; keep the information a secret and hold onto it. McConaughey chose option 1. He informed the judge of the screw-up and gave the judge a new opportunity to review the information. And he still got rejected.
Here's what McConaughey should have done: nothing. When you see a judge has committed a reversible error, you shut the hell up. That's the ace you hold up your sleeve, the one you don't play until the last minute. McConaughey should have kept quiet about the reversible error until after the trial, because a judge making a reversible error is grounds for a mistrial. Let's say Samuel L. Jackson lost the trial -- that's when McConaughey should play the "reversible error" card and get a brand new judge, jury and trial. Holding onto a reversible error is like having a mulligan, or a Get-Out-of-Death-Penalty-Free card. He could have just waited for the outcome of the trial and then said, "Nah, I don't like that. Do over."
"Only this time, we all wear party hats."
Instead, McConaughey helpfully pointed out the error in the early stages, giving the judge an opportunity to fix it, which also eliminates the possibility of a mistrial and puts Samuel in the express lane for death row.
We love being the ones to say this: For the sake of this movie (and maybe all movies, actually), Matthew McConaughey should always just shut the hell up.
When we see an obviously guilty criminal being defended, we wonder why the defense attorneys don't just roll over on their client and get his ass thrown in prison. We're sure some lawyers fantasize about jumping up and declaring their douchebag client guilty. But that's us. We make dick jokes for the Internet, we'd be terrible at lawyering. Please don't ever ask us to represent you in court.
In And Justice for All, Al Pacino's character, evidently channeling Cracked.com's Spirit of Crappy Lawyerdom, decides to screw over his own client. After spending the entire movie having his idealistic views of law crushed, he is forced to defend his arch nemesis, a judge accused of rape, played by John Forsythe. While initially believing him innocent, he soon discovers Forsythe is paying people off to give him a false alibi. During his opening statement, Pacino suddenly snaps and declares that his client is guilty before famously accusing the whole damn system of being out of order. The final scene shows him sitting outside the courthouse, having kamikazed his legal career. But at least he's got a clear conscience and he's ensured Forsythe will go to jail.
"Now, to pay the rent with ethics."
Actually, all he did was ensure Forsythe a competent defense. By refusing to represent his client, Pacino commits a breach of contract and is guilty of legal malpractice, which means the current proceedings would be declared a mistrial. Forsythe would get a whole new trial with a new attorney, probably one who doesn't share Pacino's moral hang-ups. Pacino's outburst would be inadmissible in the retrial and have no impact whatsoever.
"Also, you're all fat! So suck it!"
But, still, Pacino didn't want to represent a lying scumbag, so he didn't really have much of a choice, right? Wrong. If Pacino knew that Forsythe was guilty outright and was planning to submit false evidence, the American Bar Association rules state that Pacino is completely within his rights to notify the presiding judge. Pacino can go to the judge and say, "Hey, I know we're about to start this trial but, real quick, I just wanted you to know that my client arranged for a bunch of witnesses to lie for him. Right to your face. Everything they say is, and I want to be clear here, definitely not true. Anyway, have a good trial!" The judge in question, who is shown earlier to be somewhat fond of Pacino, could declare the false testimony inadmissible. Then even if Forsythe fires Pacino as his attorney, the fake alibis would still be inadmissible, since firing your attorney does not get you a retrial, nor would any judge grant a retrial simply because an attorney prevented his client from committing perjury.
Instead, Pacino loses his mind, goes for the grand effect and gets himself in deep legal trouble while ensuring that Forsythe almost certainly gets acquitted. What a weird move. Al Pacino normally seems so level-headed and reasonable.
This is actually just him ordering lunch.
In Double Jeopardy, Ashley Judd is wrongly convicted of murdering her husband to death. Later, we find out that the husband actually faked his death, just so he could abscond with Judd's son, her best friend and his own insurance money. While in prison, one of the inmates (claiming to be a lawyer) says that if Judd can get out of prison, she can murder her husband with no consequences because the legal doctrine of "double jeopardy" says a person can't be tried for the same crime twice. Judd immediately sets out to do just this, because who better to take legal advice from than convicted felons?
"You can also kill an extra person if you want."
Judd gets paroled and manages to track down the duplicitous bastard in New Orleans, with Tommy Lee Jones hot on her heels (when is he not chasing down fugitives?). Tommy, Ashley and the douche ex-husband all end up together, where Tommy (a professor of law) confirms that Ashley is totally within her rights to pump his two-timing guts full of lead, right before she does, with no ramifications.
This is an easy one. Even we thought the whole "double jeopardy" defense was suspect, and we're not very bright at all.
"Free murder? Thanks, the Law!"
Maybe Tommy has been retired from teaching for a while, or maybe he just really likes seeing people go to jail, but either way, he's totally wrong. Double jeopardy does stop someone from being tried for the same crime twice, but she's committing an entirely new crime. If you're wrongly convicted of stealing a TV and then you go and actually steal that same TV, do you really think they won't throw you in prison again? Another exception is "separate sovereigns," which says that double jeopardy doesn't apply if you're tried in two different jurisdictions; Ashley is initially convicted in Washington before cruising down to Louisiana to have a .38 caliber chat with her hubby. With an eyewitness and a motive, she would be back in jail faster than she could say "Should've Googled that."
"Oh. Really? Um ... my bad."
In one of the first mainstream movies to examine the role of gender in family law, Kramer vs. Kramer tells the story of a father (Dustin Hoffman) suddenly left to raise his son by himself after his wife, Meryl Streep, leaves him. Several months later, Meryl returns and demands custody of the boy. Having become accustomed to French toast and Saturday morning cartoons, Hoffman says hell no and the two go to court.
After a bitter and harsh legal battle, primary custody is awarded to Meryl, based on the "tender years doctrine," which states that preference in custody is given to the mother. Hoffman initially wants to appeal the ruling and continue to fight for his son, but Howard Duff, who plays Hoffman's lawyer, says that he'll have to put his son on the stand if they appeal. Unable to put his son through that, Hoffman tearfully concedes custody to Meryl.
We don't mean to say that Howard Duff is a moron, but Howard Duff is a moron. Appeals are based on material fact and written records from the original trial, not on new evidence. The notion that Dustin's son would be forced to testify is utterly ridiculous. Even if a retrial was ordered, the worst that would happen would be that the judge would gently ask Dustin's son a few questions about his daily life with his dad in the judge's private chambers, which is hardly the traumatizing grilling Duff makes it out to be. Additionally, while the tender years doctrine was the prevailing standard of custody arguments for many years, it had been falling out of favor for nearly a decade by the time Kramer vs. Kramer came along in 1979. Any ruling based on an outdated legal principle would provide ample fodder during the appeals process and could easily come out in Hoffman's favor. Instead, Dustin torpedoes the entire thing based on excruciatingly imbecilic advice from his lawyer and winds up losing custody of his son.
"Whatever. It's not my kid."
(It's a really sad movie that we've now made much, much sadder. Sorry.)