LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
Boston Legal (ABC Television, 2004—2008)
Welcome to the law fi rm of Crane, Poole, & Schmidt, the fi ctional fi rm at the heart of Boston Legal. While the plots of many episodes differ, most of the story lines center around Alan Shore (played by James Spader), an ethically challenged attorney who, with the help of Denny Crane (played by William Shatner), a senior partner in the fi rm, gains recognition as an attorney of last resort—the guy who can win cases that no other attorney in private practice would ever want to take. Crane, however, possesses an eccentric personality and engages in bizarre conduct as a function of being in early stages of Alzheimer’s. Shirley Schmidt (played by Candice Bergen) is the firm’s star litigator and managing partner. In that latter role, she not only has to make major decisions for the firm, but also has to supervise the questionable behaviors of the arrogant and narcissistic team of Shore and Crane. Crane’s own outrageous behavior helps to mentor Shore in his unethical ways. Indeed, it becomes clear that Shore’s knack for winning is a function of his highly questionable methods. Shore will not “let trivial things like honesty and integrity get in the way of winning a case” (Smitts 2004). For example, in one episode, he had an unlicensed physician remove a potentially life-threatening bullet from a client who had refused to seek medical treatment in a hospital for fear that the evidence gathered through traditional medical channels would lead to his being criminally convicted. Television portrayals of fictional lawyers like Alan Shore and Denny Crane create unreasonable expectations in viewers who may need to hire a lawyer. After all, who would not want to be represented by an attorney-gladiator ready to “fight the battle for them” (Slocum 2009, p. 516)? But such expectations are not realistic. In real life, attorneys who practiced law the way Alan Shore and Denny Crane did on Boston Legal would fi nd themselves in a lot a trouble with judges and their state bar association. Lawyers are bound by codes of professional responsibility and the rules of court to behave in ways that conform to a set of legal ethics. Despite the media portrayal of lawyers as angry, avenging gladiators, such a role is less common than most clients think.… But in real life, lawyers like the ones we see on TV and in the movies often end up costing their clients money— that kind of “litigation-as-war” mentality usually ratchets up the attacks and counter- attacks, with the clients becoming even angrier and more frustrated as the litigation escalates into all-out war. And the end result is not only that the lawsuit ends up costing both parties a lot of money in legal fees, but also that clients often end up pretty unhappy with the whole legal process, even if they end up getting much of what they wanted in terms of a financial outcome. Far from getting the justice they wanted and believe they deserve, they end up feeling that the legal system let them down (Slocum 2009, p. 517). After watching one or more episodes of Boston Legal, be prepared to discuss the following questions:
1. Do you think that depictions of the lawyers on Boston Legal contribute to the image of unethical criminal defense attorneys? Explain your reasoning.
2. Alan Shore and Denny Crane are just two examples of the media depicting the “win at all costs” defense attorney. Sebastian Stark on Shark is another. What other examples of unethical defense attorneys can you find in popular culture?
3. The fictional defense attorneys of yesterday, like Perry Mason, Matlock, or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird were consistently depicted as highly ethical attorneys who won cases not by ignoring the rules of professional responsibility, but rather by exercising their superior lawyering skills with uncompromised integrity. Why do you think that media portrayals of fictional defense attorneys have changed so much in a generation or two? What, if anything, does this say about the legal profession?