Lawyers, L.A. and Elsewhere

Heard any good lawyer jokes lately? If you have, most likely you didn't hear them in a movie or on a prime time television show. While the general public tends to disdain trial lawyers, Hollywood loves them. "A Civil Action," co-produced by Robert Redford and starring John Travolta, is the latest in a line of movies this decade in which heroic trial lawyers attempt to bring down evil businessmen or other powerful scoundrels.

The movie is based on an actual case in which residents of Woburn, Massachusetts sued Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace for polluting local wells with trichloroethylene (TCE), which allegedly led to a cluster of leukemia cases in the town. The movie portrays attorney Jan Schlichtmann (Travolta) as bankrupting his small law firm in an effort to "seek justice" for the eight Woburn families, with Grace and its attorneys given the role of lead villains.

The real case was a bit different. "When personal injury lawyers set about identifying the cause of their clients' illnesses, they use sophisticated methodology," writes science journalist Michael Fumento in the December 28 Forbes. "First they identify someone with deep pockets. Then they find something that Deep Pockets did that a jury might accept as the cause of the illnesses." This, according to Fumento, was what happened in the real Woburn case.

Fumento identifies "two good reasons the Woburn leukemias, even if they were due to pollution, had nothing to do with Grace's pollution. First, it is now widely believed that TCE is not a human carcinogen. Next, even if it were, Grace's TCE could not have migrated to the wells in question in time to cause an effect." In fact, two years before Grace opened its Woburn machine shop, the city was warned by an engineering firm that a nearby aquifer was too polluted to be used for drinking water wells. The city ignored the report and dug the wells, but Beatrice and Grace were the ones sued because they had the most money.

The political left knows it has a propaganda winner with "A Civil Action," and it plans to make the most of the movie. The Manhattan Institute's Walter Olson reports, in the December 23 Wall Street Journal, that environmentalists are planning tie-in events, while "The Progressive [magazine] is hoping the movie...will revive trial lawyers' image and fuel public anger at big business."

But this isn't the first movie in this decade that inflates the image of lawyers. To cite just a few examples: In "The Rainmaker," Matt Damon plays a young lawyer who forces a giant insurance company into bankruptcy because it denied his clients' claim. In "The Pelican Brief," Julia Roberts plays a law student who uncovers a big-money conspiracy to murder two Supreme Court Justices. And in "A Few Good Men," Tom Cruise plays a young Navy attorney who takes on a powerful, but corrupt, Marine general played by Jack Nicholson.

To be sure, many movie trial lawyers are portrayed as flawed human beings. Travolta's character in "A Civil Action," for instance, starts out looking as materialistic as any big business owner; he loves his expensive suits and his fancy car. But as the movie progresses, we see that down deep he's an idealist who will go to the mat for what is right. As with so many movie trial lawyers, he finds redemption through his work. Usually, the only irredeemable bad-guy lawyers are those defending businesses or tied to organized crime. Those going after a business are presented as doing the Lord's work.

The entertainment world's love for trial lawyers cannot merely be attributed to movie versions of John Grisham's novels, either. On prime time television, the legal profession is portrayed as far more virtuous than the business world. A 1997 Media Research Center study found that lawyer characters committed only one percent of TV crimes. Business characters, on the other hand, committed 29.2 percent of all TV crimes (including 30.4 percent of all TV murders). This was over three times more than characters in any other occupation, including career criminals, who were the perps in only 9.7 percent of prime time crimes. As in the movies, some TV lawyer characters are rascals who, at least at the beginning of the show, you wouldn't want your daughter to date. But by the end of the show, they've been ennobled by their profession, especially if they've taken down a big business.

Trial lawyers may be the butt of much humor, but if they want to find solace, they need look no further than the local movie house or the living room television set.