Attorney Christopher Mark Neilson



Countering lawyers’ bad rap: All Bar Conference focuses on Dignity in Law

By Jan Pudlow Associate Editor

Remember this scene from the 1997 movie “The Rainmaker”?

Danny DeVito plays the feisty paralegal, Matt Damon plays the fresh young lawyer, and they are about to cruise the hospital looking for prospective clients, the more battered and injured, the better.

When Damon’s young lawyer character looks alarmed, DeVito says: “What did they teach you in law school?”

“Well, they didn’t teach me to chase ambulances.”

“Well, you’d better learn quick  or you’ll starve.”

DeVito seizes the opportunity of an accident victim strung up in traction. By the end of their quick, unannounced visit, DeVito gets the patient’s signature by moving a contract under the hand of the poor guy who can barely clench a pen with his broken arm stuck in a cast. The deal is sealed when DeVito sticks his business card in the patient’s mouth.

“We came with nothing,” DeVito tells Damon on the way out of the hospital. “If he had thrown us out of the room, what would we have lost?”

While that exaggerated scene can’t help but bring a few chuckles, what the legal profession loses with such Hollywood depictions of lawyers is some more of its precious dignity.

What was gained from showing that film clip was sparking a lively discussion at the All Bar Conference January 16 in Miami about Dignity in Law, the first segment of the day-long session that included a panel discussion with members of the news media and tips from Christine Barney, CEO of rbb Public Relations, on how lawyers should deal with the media to get their message out.

The benefit of the day’s events, said Alan Bookman, chair of the All Bar Conference, was exposure to the Dignity in Law program to members of voluntary bars, section leaders and chairs who need to get out and spread the word to their membership.

“We have to remember that we are all lawyers, whether you practice tax law, whether you practice probate, trust and guardianship, we are all lawyers,” Bookman said. “We are, unfortunately, by a large segment of the public, put into the same barrel. We need to change that perception, because this is an honorable profession. And for some reason, the public doesn’t think so anymore. And we just need to change that, because we are often guided by what our clients want us to do. And unfortunately, some of our clients want us to be bulldogs, and want us to be obnoxious. The most obnoxious person wins. That’s not the way to practice law. You can get the same success and zealously represent your client and be professional.”

But it’s the bulldogs that grab the headlines and inspire the starring roles in films.

Second Judicial Circuit Judge Terry Lewis and Blan Teagle, director of The Florida Bar Center for Professionalism, used “The Rainmaker” film clip and others  including the comedy “My Cousin Vinny” and the classic Jimmy Stewart drama “Anatomy of a Murder” to illustrate how the powerful medium of films molds public perception about the legal profession. The idea of the interactive seminar, called “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: Lawyers and Popular Film,” was to challenge participants to determine what is professional behavior for lawyers, after viewing how the public sees them in the movies.

Judge Lewis told the group he was influenced by the movies as a kid, and when he watched Perry Mason, he thought, “That guy is cool. I’d like to do that. . . . But then I realized all my clients wouldn’t be innocent, so I stayed away from criminal law.”

When the DeVito character expresses a lawyer’s ethics, he sums it up as “Fight for your client, refrain from stealing, and try not to lie.”

Judge Lewis asked seminar participants to list their own litmus test for ethics. Up on the poster board came this list: “What would Mom think? The Golden Rule. Would I open myself up for criticism, especially from the Bar? Would I mind if the news media reported it? Would it pass my ‘gut test’? Would my client approve? How does it mesh with what I’ve been taught by my
faith? Would it withstand the ethical standards of my profession and community?”

“I’m partial to the Golden Rule myself,” Judge Lewis said. “Obviously, Danny DeVito had his own moral compass.”

Teagle admitted he was a bit naive when he graduated from law school and first went to work as a lawyer.

“I didn’t realize it was a business. I knew it intellectually, but I didn’t understand it,” he said. Eventually, he said he understood that “yes, it is a business and a profession. It’s not either/or, but it must be kept in balance.”

Board of Governors member David Bianchi of Miami made the point that only 20 percent of the public go to lawyers for litigation-related matters.

“It’s what we just saw in the movie that is really how the entire profession is judged, even though it represents a small section of why people go to lawyers. . .The image of lawyers is being judged by a single digit (of lawyers who do unethical things). What are the few doing that hurts the many?” Don Horn, another board member from Miami, added: “Movies help mold and shape our image with the public. More people will see this movie than anything we produce in Dignity in Law. We can mold and shape by saying, ‘No, there are a whole lot of lawyers doing good things.'”
Bar President Tod Aronovitz interjected that he is getting a lot of positive feedback about the Bar’s Dignity in Law program that is trying to spread the word about the good things that lawyers and judges do every day.

“I also spent a lot of time with journalists and nonlawyers,” Aronovitz said. “And I am of the strong belief that mentoring is very, very important for this whole issue of professionalism. As recently as yesterday, I was talking to a respected journalist about why she isn’t covering this All Bar Conference. And she was talking to me about the courtesy and condescending conduct. And the reason she believes most lawyers are not received well or not perceived to be honest and reputable, is not because they are not honest, but because of the way they act toward other people.”

Yet, when people get in trouble, they want an aggressive advocate, Judge Lewis said.

“It’s very similar to your representatives in Congress,” Judge Lewis said. “They think Congress is the scum of the Earth, except for their own members, who get re-elected. They don’t like lawyers. They’re awful. But not mine. They want an aggressor, they want a son of a bitch for themselves.”

Christopher Neilson, of the Broward County Bar Association, said advertising doesn’t help lawyers’ image. He said his wife, who is a nurse, was offended by an ad that said: “Call 1-800-PIT-BULL.”

“The media portrays us as a Danny DeVito,” Neilson said. “We have to try to turn it around by developing a positive image that overcomes that. How we do that is one day at a time, one step at a time.”

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