Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2009 | Features

Trial by Movie

By Shelbi Thomas
"In our courts all men are created equal. I'm no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and our jury system. That's no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality."

From Matlock to Michael Clayton, fictional lawyers have the power to entertain us. One UI law class explores whether they also have the ability to change our legal system.

With such an impassioned, moving speech, it's no wonder that this 1930s civil rights lawyer inspired thousands of others to follow in his footsteps fighting for justice. The fact that Atticus Finch—hero of To Kill a Mockingbird—is merely a fictional character doesn't dim his real-life appeal. If anything, it only serves to reinforce the strong and enduring ties between our legal system and popular culture.

UI law professor Mark Schantz, 63BA, was one of those people drawn to law by Finch's unwavering moral compass. As the instructor for the "Law and Popular Culture" course, he leads a class of ten second- and third-year law students that explores how films such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Verdict influence the way people perceive the legal system—and how law shapes culture.

From the death penalty to same-sex marriage, American courts increasingly reflect the social issues of the time. In turn, these hot-button topics provide dramatic material for movies and television shows that help sway the general public's opinion on such matters—as well as provide much of what it knows about law. Philadelphia helped open up a national dialogue on homosexuality and AIDS; Kramer vs. Kramer explored the effects of divorce on families with children; Dead Man Walking put the death penalty under the spotlight.

L.A. Law viewers might perceive lawyers as good-looking and rich, while Judge Judy fans may believe that judges always ask the questions in a trial. No matter how inaccurate these depictions, they affect what people expect from—and how they view—the future lawyers in Schantz's class.

Sometimes, they also affect those students' own views of their chosen profession. Michelle Wheelhouse of Barrington, Illinois, says that while she entered law school with dreams of becoming the next Finch, the nitty-gritty of memorizing law and procedure often left her disillusioned. "In their third year of law school, students are ready to be more actively engaged in their classes rather than listen to someone lecture," says Schantz, who notes that many students take "Law and Popular Culture" to get a better perspective on their future careers. "This course gets them back to thinking and talking about the issues that made them interested in law in the first place."

The class watches more than a dozen films that address various aspects of law. Anatomy of a Murder takes on the adversary system, 12 Angry Men puts the criminal jury system on trial, and Counsellor at Law cross-examines the life of lawyers. In addition to leading class discussions, students each write and present a 20-page paper on a law and pop culture topic—everything from the law according to The Simpsons to how military justice is portrayed in A Few Good Men.

Though Schantz has years of legal experience that include appearances before the Supreme Court and service as the UI's general counsel, he recognizes that his students' media-saturated upbringings give them an expert edge in this course. "The class runs itself," he says. "Sometimes if I want to get in the discussion, I have to elbow my way in."

The selected films address the ethical and moral dilemmas that students may face in court—and even provide practical tips for practicing law. Surprisingly, one of these teachable moments comes from the screwball comedy My Cousin Vinny. In the movie, Vinny, an unpolished Brooklyn lawyer, defends two college students accused of murder in Alabama. Vinny's defense revolves around a mechanic's expert testimony on the skid marks left by a 1964 Skylark that fled the scene. The film provides a strong introduction to the rules of criminal procedure, as well as an effective cross-examination of the expert witness. Schantz's class analyzes the methods that Vinny uses to set up the expert's testimony, while other UI law professors show the movie in evidence and trial technique courses.

Most legal-themed television shows and films contain such a grain of truth, although directors often sacrifice accuracy to squeeze a complex story into a relatively short movie—or to boost entertainment value. Take The Paper Chase, a film about a student trying to survive a tyrannical professor's class in his first year at Harvard Law School. "For some reason when you enter law school, everyone says you have to see the movie," says Wheelhouse, who was appalled by the stereotypical hardnosed law professor character. "I watched it right before law school and wondered, 'Why am I going? This is horrible!'"

Since these shows exist to entertain—rather than to recruit prospective law students—the "Law and Popular Culture" class debates whether a film's real-life plausibility even matters. After all, as film critic Roger Ebert says, "Nothing could be more boring than a totally accurate legal movie."

Schantz contends that accuracy in entertainment matters only when it affects people's perceptions of the law and its players. Judges and attorneys have recently noticed a phenomenon known as the C.S.I. Effect, named after a popular television show where trials tend to hinge on forensic evidence collected by investigators with high-tech gadgets. Today's juries expect the same easily understood, black-and-white forensic evidence in real courtrooms and may give it more weight than it actually deserves. Schantz reminds his students to keep that fact in mind as they develop their legal strategies.

In an age where lawyer jokes run rampant and public opinion of attorneys has sunk to an all-time low, Schantz's students also stay mindful of how pop culture contributes to the stereotypes. Gone are the days of Atticus Finch. Now the virtuous lawyer seems more the exception than the rule, as students discover when they compare To Kill a Mockingbird with The Verdict, a movie made 20 years later in which Paul Newman plays a flawed lawyer trying to redeem himself from his reputation as an alcoholic and ambulance chaser.

"People have come to expect that lawyers are glamorous people who flirt in the office or do quirky things, that they are good or bad without anything in the middle, and that they're rich and represent big corporations," says law student James Soliah of Decorah. "But that's only one concept of a lawyer. It's really a diverse career."

The class also finds that female lawyers fare worse onscreen than their male counterparts. Some only succeed when they act like men in power suits, sacrificing their family life for their careers. Others serve primarily as the male lead's romantic love interest. Ally McBeal and Legally Blonde portray female attorneys as ditzy; Michael Clayton imagines them diabolical.

Schantz says students come out of the class re-energized about the impact that they can make on society through their chosen profession. They also realize how their practice can be affected by what someone saw on last night's episode of Law and Order. For today's pop-savvy juries, lawyers must make their case using strong narratives and keep their opening and closing arguments short and snappy.

Students say the course inspires them to help improve the lawyer's public image, so that their clients and juries don't always believe what they see on TV. "Of course, I don't mind ignoring [the inaccuracies] and being entertained," says Soliah. "But, I hope people understand that the legal films and TV shows they watch are constructed for entertainment and only have a marginal connection to reality."