Hollywood Myths, Cracked: 4 Things About Lawyers We Believe Because Of Movies And TV Shows
Hollywood will have us believe all sorts of things: From psychopaths not being able to feel emotions (they sure do), to every courtroom trial being the most fascinating and exciting trial in the history of courtroom trials. Of course, around 90% of people who've done jury duty in the United States already know that it’s far from the entertaining value we enjoy on screen. Today Hollywood Myths, Cracked’s taking a look at how things really are for people practicing law. Hint: Not all that glamorous, not nearly as dramatic …
Let’s Get The Courtroom Dramatics Out Of The Way
Right, it’s a movie, or a show, and writers and directors want to focus on the drama, up the stakes, and make it a spectacle so that we the viewers won’t flip the channel (or, in modern times, just fall asleep until the streamer asks us if we’re still watching). So yes, a lawyer pretending they’re the ringmaster of a courtroom is played for spectacle. Only in real life, many movie shenanigans will get a person either thrown out or, at the very least, tackled by the bailiff.
In Better Call Saul’s very first episode, we see Jimmy McGill bursting into the courtroom after giving himself a pep talk in the bathroom (apparently trial lawyers often practice in the bathroom like that), and he enters the well — the space between the council table and the bench — without any verbal permission to immediately address the courtroom. According to Devin Stone, a trial lawyer who specializes in all aspects of civil litigation, this will definitely get a guy tackled (or at least reprimanded).
There’s also the cute little decoy sequence, in which Jimmy switches his defendant with a lookalike, causing the witness to wrongly identify the defendant.
It’s a clever twist on a cross-examination … that will most surely get a lawyer sanctioned by the judge. Sure, a witness could be asked to identify whether a defendant is present in a courtroom (known as the in-court show-up), but this is not something done during a cross-examination, and judges and prosecutors aren’t blindsided by it.
Also, screaming matches in courtrooms are never allowed. A lawyer can’t just yell “Objection, your honor!” like they’re in the middle of a Shakespeare play. They need to give an immediate reason for said objection, and shouting, again, is not courtroom etiquette. We probably can’t refrain from mentioning the most famous cinematic courtroom outburst here, because while the judge tells Tom Cruise he’s being held in contempt in A Few Good Men, that judge may just as well have told him it’s a nice day outside.
A thrilling scene, sure, but that judge may as well have said “I’ll allow it,” since he totally does.
One Case At A Time
Movies and shows about lawyers often depict the long and tedious hours of prepping for a case trial by way of an adorable 10 second montage involving a single lawyer looking over stacks of papers while chugging mugs of God knows what and developing a severe case of Droopy Eye. Yes, these hours are long and tedious, but in reality, many trial lawyers who work for big firms have a team assisting them in their prep, and almost never are they focused on one case alone. It can take years for court proceedings to commence — especially for trials as big as we often see on screen — which means that lawyers end up working multiple cases at a time. So, somehow it’s even more crappy than the movies make it out to be.
Public defenders seem to have it the worst. The New York Times did a piece in 2017 on Jack Talaska, a former public defender in Lafayette, Louisiana, who had a whopping 194 felony cases open at the time, and these guys don’t have their own powerhouse teams like the fancy-schmancy law firms seen in The Firm or shows like The Good Wife.
“The workload can be overwhelming even under the best circumstances, and most offices never experience the best circumstances,” Talaska told The Times. “Most offices don't have paralegals, law clerks, or full-time investigators.” The Times calculated that those 194 felony cases would’ve taken Talaska 10,000 hours/five years to complete the work. That’s a lot of montages, you guys. But as John Meer, lawyer and former associate at Paul Hastings said about John Grisham’s The Firm: “If they made (the movie) realistic, it would be people sitting around in a library. And nobody would want to watch it.”
Evidence Can't Just Be Introduced Mid-Trial
Returning to those courtroom shenanigans (we could arguably write an entire article on that alone), movies and shows often portray defense lawyers duping the prosecution (or the other way around) by magically conjuring some newly-found yet damning evidence. Twist!
In Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, a reporter frames himself for a murder simply to oust Michael Douglas as a corrupt DA who enjoys coming up with last-minute evidence in the form of DNA … that he himself plants everywhere. Only, the use of DNA during a trial needs to be noted during the pre-trial period, and pulling such a stunt would most certainly result in a mistrial. Sure, there is room for discovery, but it’s not thrown at the court during a cross-examination like a magician pulling a rabbit from his butt. The judge needs time to decide whether it’s permissible or not, and modern discovery policies hold that prosecutors can’t swing around new evidence in court without the defense knowing about it first.
So something like this is just not going to fly in a real courtroom:
Lawyers Gone Rogue
Movies and shows about lawyers and attorneys enjoy showing these people doing whatever the heck they want, when they want. In The Untouchables, Capone’s lawyer simply decides he’s changed his mind, gets up and overturns his client’s plea to guilty without Capone’s permission. That’s a big no-no in real life, as it takes away the client’s rights.
That whole ending is wild because you can’t just switch the jury like that, and the entire trial ended up being such a blackmailing mess that there’d most certainly be a retrial (if that’s even possible). In any case, every judge will extensively question the defendant to make sure their guilty plea is sincere and, most importantly, voluntary. So you know, there’s that.
And then, of course, there’s the glamourized freedoms these folks supposedly have, because in the movies, lawyers are less Socrates and more every guy in The Wolf of Wall Street. In The Firm, while studying for his bar exam, Tom Cruise takes a job as an associate at a boutique law firm that sees him diving into the deep end and even flying off to the Cayman Islands.
Only, all of that is laughed at by actual lawyers, who told the L.A. Times back when the movie came out: “When you are in bar preparation mode, you can’t function on any other level. You get on autopilot. And you certainly don’t go to the Cayman Islands while you’re studying for the bar — at least if you plan on passing.”
Lastly, as much as movies and shows want to play up the theme of moral ambiguity so freely found in the World of Law, lawyers and attorneys don’t go around committing crimes of their own to please their clients. In the She-Hulk comics, Jennifer Walters at one point steals some classified documents because her client, one Steve Rogers, suggested it’d be good for his case. In some movies like The Firm, they’ll have us believe that lawyers will do anything to protect themselves and their crook clients because it's some kind of code they follow. But as white-collar criminal defense attorney Barry Tarlow told L.A. Times: “I represent people that are involved in organized crime, but representing people doesn’t mean you do something illegal for them. It doesn’t mean you have anything to do with their personal affairs.”
Unless, of course, you’re a con artist like Saul Goodman.
Thumbnail: AMC/Netflix, Disney+