Obstacles to Reading Lawyer Films

James R. Elkins

Films are Made to Give Us Pleasure. "I watch films for pleasure and I don't want to destroy that pleasure by an an attempt to interpret the film."

Films Don't Present Law in Anyway Remotely Resembling The Law as We Lawyers Know It. "The most obvious thing you notice as a student of law or a lawyer watching lawyer films is how the films distort the law andlegal procedures. Lawyer films don't present the law accurately."

The Reality Critique: "The main problem with lawyer films is that they don't present lawyers in a realistic way. Lawyers in the real world aren't anything like the lawyers we find in films."

Lawyer Films Are Part of the Hollywood Film Industry. "Lawyer films are a product of the Hollywood film industry and aren't intended as prescriptions on how to live or practice law."

All I Can Tell You is What I've Seen. "About the only thing a student can do with a film is describe the characters and the plot and say something about the story."


From Pleasure To An Interpretive Strategy. Watching a film for entertainment requires no work. Like a dream remembered in those brief moments upon awakening, there seems nothing to do, unless of course you want to understand the dream, but put the dream to work, ask what it means, where it might have come from, and what its connection is to you, the dreamer. In your work in the course, you will need a strategy to translate pleasure into an interpretive reading that establish the film's place in your understanding of the legal profession and your own identity as a lawyer. You cannot, in the context of a film course, even one offered in law school, allow the habitual pleasures you associate with films distract you from the work you must do to understand the film.

David Mamet, a playwright, screenwriter, and director who I greatly admire, notes that

Movies possess unlimited power to entertain. They have, however, no power whatever to teach. The audience lends its attention only for the purpose of entertainment and will deny (consciously or unconsciously) its attention to any other purpose. (The child wants his bedtime storyit is an impertinence to use it as a lecture.)

[David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 156 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]

I can't quite figure out whether Mamet is presenting this assertion in an ironic tone or not. If his statement is to be taken literally, undermines the central premise of this course: Lawyer films teach and what they teach can be made a part of your education as a lawyer. While I have followed Mamet's work on playwriting and screenwriting with considerable interest, I don't think this particular statement can stand with rebuttal.

Films are, obviously a source of pleasurein the sense that art produces pleasurea pleasure sometimes hard to define and explain, and we must find a way to articulate that pleasure in our work with a film. Pauline Kael reminds us that films must be “judged in terms of how they extend our experience and give us pleasure . . . .” [Pauline Kael, “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” in David Denby (ed.), Awake in the Dark: An Anthology of American Film Criticism, 1915 to the Present 146-168, at 160 (New York: Vintage Books, 1977)]

My hope is that the pleasure we associate with films can be translated into thoughtful, imaginative writing about the films. I know that there are go guarantees when it comes to translation of pleasure into course writing.

Avoid Legalistic Readings. When law students watch a film, the first thing they want to do is criticize the film by pointing out its legal inaccuracies. This kind of criticism is appealing because it makes the student an instance expert and film critic; it allows the student to draw on insider knowledge to challenge the view of law and lawyers presented in the film. A teacher in evidence, civil procedure, trial practice, or legal ethics might find this use of lawyer films of some value. But in this course, we have, as they say in Kentucky, other fish to fry.

The formulaic catalogue of legal inaccuracies trotted out by legal film critics we can do it in our sleep. And in doing so, we end up sleepwalking through the film. Conventional legal film criticism allows us to continue our educational slumber.

A Note on the Reality Critique. "If people think of lawyers as rapacious sharks, this is unlikely to be pure invention; probably something really serious out there in the water, sharp-toothed and greedy, which produces the fear and the loathing." [Lawrence M. Friedman, Law Lawyers, and Popular Culture, 98 Yale L. J. 1577, 1593 (1989)]

Getting Beyond Literal and Surface Readings of Films. The lack of familiarity and experience in reading lawyer films may lead a student to describe the characters and the plot and calling it a day's work. The problem here is that a literal reading of the film tells us only what we already know. A way must be found to get beyond the obvious.

I walk out of a film and my friend asks, "what did you think about the film?" I reply, "I liked it." He asks, "what did you like?" At this point in the conversation, I have the opportunity to present my understanding of the film. My understanding may be in the most clichéd of terms; I might also search for a language and a way to describe what I have seen that does not rely upon over-used terms and expressions. But how am I to do that? How can I find a way to adequately express how the film has affected me? How the film has deepened my understanding of law, the legal profession, and the human condition?

While our initial reaction to a film or piece of literature is important--indeed it may never be overcome--t will be important in a film course to get beyond your original reaction and immediate impressions of the film. You must find a way to say something more than this is the story of the film, these are the characters, this is what the lawyer character did, and I liked or disliked the film. You must find a way to read the film at some deeper level and attempt to reach some level of meaning that will make the film not only an evening of pleasure, but a text for analytical and critical attention.

Adam Holley, a former student, in a paper written for a lawyers and literature course noted that "It is one thing to enjoy dumb things, yet another to have dumb things produced for consumption because we are dumb and don't know it." When I talk about films I try to avoid saying dumb things, and try to know when I am venturing onto dumb terrain.

Every film has a surface and, if it is a film of any value, something beyond. You must try to get from the surface—plot characters, story line and the dazzle of visual images—to something beneath/beyond/behind this surface of literal features. What is this film doing? (And what can I, by my reading, make it do?) Does the film assume pretensions of doing anything other than entertainment? (And if it is nothing more than entertaining, how does it accomplish this purpose?) What kind of lawyer would this film have me be?

A key term here is: critical. As one commentator/teacher puts it: "In this class the expectation is that we will not be innocent consumers of various texts, but reflective and critical. (Critical is used here as a response to common sense. To be critical is not to accept the common sense meanings and relationships, but to unpack them and their assumptions, looking for other meanings and implications.)" [Robert Muffoletto's "Technology in Education," syllabus, College of Education, University of Northern Iowa]

You might check your film reading against the following progressions which signal a movement from the surface to the depths beyond: (i) the movement from the personal to the abstract, the simple to the complex, the notational to the interpretative; (ii) the movement from plot to story to myth; (iii) the movement from the familiar, to the puzzling, to the mysterious.

The Absence of a Guide Book on How to Do What You Are Asked to Do Here. It would be wonderful if I could provide students with written texts that provide a better feel for the humanistic, pedagogical approach to reading lawyer films. Unfortunately, film theory, film criticism, and film studies do not provide an economical and accessible response to the student who asks: How can I, as a student of law read this film, and in talking and writing about it, make it a part of my education as a lawyer?

In teaching lawyer films I assign minimal reading about films, and no readings about the particular films I use in the course. I do so with the realization that film studies is an established academic discipline and that there is a substantial body of scholarly research and writing on films.

There are, however, works from screenwriters that I find of sufficient interest to recommend to students. I find both Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins/ ReganBooks, 1997) and Christopher Vogler's The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998) of value. While both McKee and Vogler ostensibly focus on screenwriting, they provide insight into the deep structure of films, and stories more generally. The writing on screenwriting is much more attuned to how stories are constructed and what makes stories work, and thus, covers a terrain that is of direct interest to lawyers.

The literature on screenwriting can be contrasted to the academic work on film theory and film criticism, much of it so littered with academic jargon and theoretical posturing that it is more painful than instructive. I recommend the McKee and Vogler books to students because they help us read lawyer films and, perhaps in some indefinable way, may actually help us understand what it means to practice law.

The best two books on legal films are: John Denvir’s collection of essays, Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1996) and Anthony Chase's Movies on Trial: The Legal System on the Silver Screen (New York: The New Press, 2002). Unfortunately, neither Legal Reelism or Movies on Trial provide anything more than wisps of interests on the pedagogy of legal and lawyer films. The lack of pedagogical focus extends to still other legal films studies books, including: Stefan Machura & Peter Robson (eds.), Law and Film (Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) and Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas & Martha Merrill Umphrey (eds.), Law on the Screen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005). David Black’s Law in Film: Resonance and Representation (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1999) is a bloated theoretical foray that contains a few gems drawn from Black's Ph.D. dissertation, presumably in film studies, at New York University.

One of the few, if not only, legal film books to focus on film pedagogy is Michael Asimow & Shannon Mader’s Law and Popular Culture: A Course Book (New York: Peter Lang, 2004). While Law and Popular Culture provides a wealth of valuable background information on legal films (including several films we watch in the Lawyers and Film course, "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Verdict," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Class Action." The Asimow & Mader book is marred, in my view, by the relentless focus on the legal accuracy of lawyer films, and its relentless comparison of the lawyers found in film to their so-called real world counterparts, and the authors facile judgment on the value/quality/meaning of legal films depending on whether the film lawyer is judged to be a good lawyer or a bad lawyer.

Still other law and film books include: Cynthia Lucia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film (Austin: University of Texas, 2005); Ross D. Levi, The Celluloid Courtroom: A History of Legal Cinema (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2005), Kathy Laster, The Drama of the Courtroom (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2000)


Michael Asimow, Bad Lawyers in the Movies, 24 Nova L. Rev. 531 (2000)

Marlene Booth, Fact and Fiction in Film, 15 Legal Stud. F. 233 (1991)

Joel K. Asarch, Audiovisual Media Tend to Distort Role Realistically Played by Lawyers, 199 New York Law Journal 39 (May 2, 1988)

Suzanne Frentz, T.V. Law: Image Versus Reality, 7 (1) Focus on Law Studies 1 (American Bar Association, 1991)

John Katzman, Perception v. Reality, The Lawyer in Popular Culture, Texas Bar Journal 116 (Feb. 1992)

Amy Mashburn and Dabney Ware, The Burden of Truth: Reconciling Literary Reality with Professional Mythology, 26 University of Memphis Law Review 1257 (1996)

David Ray Papke, The American Courtroom Trial: Pop Culture, Courthouse Realities, and the Dream World of Justice, 40 South Texas Law Review 919 (1999)

_____________, Conventional Wisdom: The Courtroom Trial in American Popular Culture, 82 Marquette Law Review 471 (1999)

Margaret M. Russell, "Rewiting History with Lighting: Race, Myth, and Hollywood in the Legal Pantheon," in John Denvir (ed.), Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts 172-198 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

Richard Sherwin, When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line Between Law and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Rochelle Siegel, Presumed Accurate: When the Law Goes to the Movies, 76 ABA Journal 42 (August 1990)

David M. Spitz, Heroes or Villains? Moral Struggles vs. Ethical Dilemmas: An Examination of Dramatic Portrayals of Lawyers and the Legal Profession in Popular Culture, 24 Nova Law Review 725 (2000)

Avi J. Stachenfeld & Christopher M. Nicholson, Blurred Boundaries: An Analysis of the Close Relationship Between Popular Culture and the Practice of Law, 30 University of San Francisco Law Review 903 (1996)

David R. Weiss, Overcoming Our Silver Screen Image, 4 Maine Bar Journal 249 (1989) .