Thursday, April 2, 2009

Are Those Sleek and Tidy Lawyer Offices In the Movies and on TV a Fair Depiction of Reality?

Posted by Alan Childress (and Kelly Anders, below)

Or are the occasional messy and paper-filled depictions more real?  Just how much of a lacuna exists between the representation and the reality of office godliness within the ontology of pop culture portrayals of offices used by lawyer-characters?  And isn't it worth noting, unrelated and yet apt, that the Franz Kafka Int'l Airport in Prague was ranked by Business Week as the world's most alienating airport?  Including "extremely long corridors that lead to dead ends."  (Not really.)

Anyway, the office question is not mine.  Sent to me by our occasional and interesting guest-poster Kelly Lynn Anders of Washburn Law School in Topeka is this request for more examples.  I will think about it and hope our readers do too (this is also a job for Jeff, Mike, and Nancy -- all avid lawyer-movie watchers).  Kelly writes:

On this rainy Kansas morning, I am in the midst of research for a CLE that meshes my book, The Organized Lawyer (Carolina Academic Press, 2009), with the topic of Professionalism in the Law. I just returned from the University of Iowa where I gave a similar presentation, which included a brief discussion of how lawyers’ offices appear (or don’t appear) in films and television shows, and how these depictions reflect on clients’ interpretations of what our spaces “should” look like, and how the realities may impact clients’ opinions of us as professionals. As I think about it, the only spaces one sees on screen are either slick and practically paperless (as in “LA Law” or “Boston Legal”) or old, worn, and disheveled (implying a sense of being overwhelmed and needing help, such as in “Erin Brockovich”).  I then started seeking out cases that actually mention elements of disorganization that led to sanctions or disbarment. Do you know of any such cases, or of examples on screen that show realistic depictions? Please advise.

Alan adds: I recall that there was some contrast in 1991's Class Action between the shopworn and paper-packed offices of the championing plaintiffs' lawyers (Gene Hackman and Laurence Fishburne) and the megafirm evil defenders of the auto company (including a highly conflicted -- in every sense, since she is Gene's daughter too --  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).  The defense firm's offices were so pristine and sparse as to pass the OCD white glove test of Patrick Bergin in Sleeping With The Enemy, also a 1991 classic.  But I am not sure, Kelly, that the earnest messiness of Gene's firm was meant to convey a sense of overwhelmed or lesser confidence (indeed, Gene is one cocky lawyer, even before becoming a cocky jury-fixer in Runaway Jury, filmed here in New Orleans).  That is, up till late in the movie when Mastrantonio's firm delivers truckloads of documents in last-minute discovery and does in fact overwhelm Gene and, mainly, Laurence (because Gene does not do document review or client hand-holding, you see).

One nearly-related example (of personal kemptness rather than offices) is the funny opening of 1989's True Believer, in which the tidy and well-dressed person at the defense table turns out to be the criminal defense client, represented by an untidy James Woods whom the camera panned in such a way as to imply he was the defendant.  Job applicant Robert Downey Jr., back in the courtroom, gets them mixed up of course and hands his resume to the wrong one, I think.  One of the film's perhaps unintended ironies throughout is how the squeaky clean Robert Downey Jr. keeps haranguing James Woods for his lifestyle choices and representing...drug users.

As to bar sanctions, my sense is that haphazard organization is mainly a direct issue when it deals with financial records and trust accounts.  I am sure it underlies some other faults, like poor communication with clients and acts of malpractice, but I do not recall a lot of reports where it itself is the main culprit cited.  But the most realistic depictions of office space?  (Mmmm, yeaaahhh. I'm going to need you to come in on Saturday.)  Hope our readers will chime in....

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My new book, Firm Conviction: A Case Against Private Law Practice, addresses the myth that lawyers are organized, neat and tidy professionals. It is available on or L.S. Lane, Esq.

Posted by: Lisa S. Lane | Apr 3, 2009 6:14:35 AM

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