Monday, November 13, 2006

Law Movies: 12 Angry Men


STARRING: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Ed Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, George Voskovec, Robert Webber
DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet
STUDIO: United Artists
RATING: NR
GENRE: Drama / Crime
RELEASE DATE: April 13, 1957

You might wonder why I have been posting law movie commentary lately. Well, I have been exploring these various movies for a reason. I am wondering why I became a lawyer. I'll tell you a bit of a secret. Some days, being a lawyer is really, really boring. It's mundane work sometimes. Sometimes it's hard to get up in the morning, because I know that I am going to have to relegate my time towards filling in template contracts, template real estate documents, template wills. There's not a whole lot of thought that goes into this work sometimes. Every once in a while, I will become surprised by a genuine challenge - a legal twist that requires real thought. A problem that requires a unique solution. But, more often, it's little different than an assembly line job.

Sounds terrible, but it's better to fact the truth than to lie to myself. Here's the conundrum. I have spent 10 years in university, and 1 1/2 years training myself for this particular career - that of a lawyer. So, I'm not willing to give up on this choice just yet. In the past, when I have faced a wall (think long-distance running), I often have taken stock of the reasons I am doing what I am doing. In watching movies, amongst other exercises, I am looking deeper within myself to find the real reasons that I wanted, or want to become a lawyer. And, once that answer is found, I want to answer the question as to how to become a really good lawyer.

Some will argue that law movies are overtly fictitious accounts of life and the law. But, I counter that with the position that movies appeal to us so much because they reflect real life in more ways than we choose to accept or realize.

Colleagues have posited that lawyers don't act like Tom Cruise or Andy Griffeth or John Travolta. Courtroom antics on LA Law do not reflect real-life, every-day, nitty gritty, legislative and rule-based litigation or criminal matters. This might be true. But, there is something that we see on the big screen, something that continues to drive the massive market of law movies (and law novels, for that matter). We all seek after justice, we all want to see the underdog win. We all want fairness. And, some of us like to see the darker side of life. We like to conduct a forensic analysis of a situation, and feel like we can come out on top, to solve the issue, to see through the mist and bring light to the situation.

By probing these thoughts and questions, after watching a legal themed movie, it helps me to understand a little bit better what attracted me to law. It helps me to look at my own practice, and to tweak things a little bit. Realize that I am not looking to DVD's for legal theory or courtroom etiquette. I am looking at character, at ethics and morals, at treatment of real human beings, and at difficult situations that pose really deep questions.

Many legal stories are not written by real lawyers. Although John Grisham was a lawyer, he does not currently practice. Whether formally educated in the law or not, legal authors choose to look beyond the procedural aspects of the law to the drama involved. There is a reason for the incredible volume of legally-themed fiction in America. We are all fascinated by this subject matter. Many of us seem to secretly long to fulfill the role of the attorney, or for some of us, the judge.

I loved legal-themed movies, and TV (I don't watch TV anymore) before law school. I still love them. They inspire me, and they help me to look within myself to explore my identity as a servant of the people.

I watched 12 Angry Men again on Saturday. Great movie. A must-see if you are at all interested in justice. It is an interesting film, made in 1957. It stars 12 actors who, except for a brief moment at the beginning of the film, and for a brief moment at the conclusion, never leave the jury room. An entire movie filmed in one room seemed impossible to me, until I saw this movie. There is little action, other than men getting up and moving around the room. Once in a while, they will go to the attached washroom. You watch this movie more with your auditory senses than with your eyes (although the acting and facial expressions are quite good, especially for this period).

The film stars Henry Fonda (think On Golden Pond). He plays the devil's advocate. He causes the other 11 jurors to question the seemingly clear-cut conclusion as to a death-penalty murder case. He teaches the other jurors about the concept of reasonable doubt, and about the assumption of innocence until proven guilty. Although somewhat melodramatic compared to modern dramas, the issues and dilemmas are genuine. The characterizations are quite superb.

It is a black and white film, and all of the extras that we see in movies today are stripped away. The only props are a few exhibits from the murder case, and some hats, jackets and handkerchiefs. Otherwise, it's just you and the jury. I found this interesting because with a real jury case, it's just the lawyer, the judge and the jury. You can use evidence, although on a limited basis. Otherwise, it's up to you as the lawyer to paint the picture of what happened at the time of the crime, or the incident. You have to act. You have to create drama. You have to pull at the heartstrings of everyday people. You have to make them question their preconceptions about many things. You have to suspend belief, and sometimes cause a paradigm shift. You have to act as psychologist, analyst, social commentator, and more, all while staying within the confines of evidential rules. It is no doubt, a grand challenge.

I love teaching people about the law. I love meeting with a client, face to face, and changing their mind about their response to a situation or to someone else. I love looking at the person's challenge and helping them to see many possible outcomes, and helping them to choose the path that will lead to the most satisfaction. I love help the person to predict what the other side will do or say, what a judge will do or say, and to help them to avoid potential pitfalls or mistakes.

There are many things that I do love about the practice of law. There are many things that I want to do with the knowledge that I have absorbed and gathered over the years. I hope that you too can find inspiration in the movies, in novels and in the world around you, to help you to reach your potential as an attorney, as a servant of the people.

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