By Stewart Osborne
About 5 years back, a movie called The Lincoln Lawyer was released, based on one of a series of novels starring a then “still clawing his way back up” Matthew McConaughey. To give you a brief synopsis, it’s about a smooth-talking Californian criminal defence attorney who knows everyone, abuses every loophole, and ends up on the wrong end of a situation with a sneaky client who tries to corner him using professional privilege, and yet he miraculously slips the noose and wins the day in true Hollywood style.
Very stylish, very slick, and pretty vacuous (not filling in any Californian stereotypes there, are we?), in the first half hour, in no particular order, Haller’s being chauffeured around from court to court and arranging future ‘gifts’ to facilitate prisoner movements for corrections officers because his schedule’s so tight. He then uses creative methods for keeping clients remanded in custody and stalling hearings, pending receipt of cash stuffed envelopes from ‘motorcycle enthusiasts’, who he then admits he will creatively overcharge to justify his expenses… that’s just for starters. All of this sounds pretty legit as far as being a criminal lawyer goes, right?
Let’s talk about some seriously twisted and unrealistic expectations. Haller is not a cowboy, or a maverick. In the movie, he’s cool and slick. By real life standards, he’s actually an out an out criminal and a disgrace to the court of which he is an officer.
Let’s take a quick look at the sample of misconduct considered above.
Why’s Haller being chauffeured? Oh yes, his licence was suspended for his propensity towards drink driving. One would hope he’d informed the ethics committee about that.
Then it gets heavier and heavier… Stop and ask yourself, what’s the closest you’ve come in your life to ACTUALLLY bribing someone? Maybe overpaying a cover charge when a late night venue is full? Bribing a prison officer for any reason, such as to expedite movement of your client (regardless of the amount, a measly $100 in the movie) is a different thing entirely – that’s a fast track to needing a defence lawyer of your own.
Misleading the court, of which you are an officer and to whom you owe a duty first and foremost, as to the need to locate a material witness in order to get your client remanded, specifically to squeeze his motorcycle enthusiast mates for more money? Now you’re looking at contempt of court in addition to seeing your practicing certificate spontaneously combust.
When the aforesaid squeezed motorcycle enthusiasts effectively pull you over on the road, and you take an envelope loaded with cash after outright lying to them about your intentions as far as use of those funds go, without so much as an entry in the trust account books, or maybe even an AUSTRAC report about the suspiciously large amount of hard currency which your client’s associate, who is not gainfully employed, handed you, you’re no longer a criminal defence lawyer. You’re a criminal and a conman, and possibly looking at money laundering charges as well.
Later, in no particular order, we also see Haller buying illegal guns and brandishing them, convincing a client to act against his best interests to the extent that said client is imprisoned for life, using his bikie connections to assault and intimidate his now former client, and bribing officials using a third party (sensing a theme with the casual bribery in criminal law? NO! THERE ISN’T!) to get an early look at the discovery file. But in the end, justice prevails and all is right with the world.
All in a day’s work, right? NO! IT ISN’T!
If you found yourself nodding along with a ‘yes’, condoning pretty much any point in Haller’s day mentioned above, on the basis that ‘it’s only going to be a problem if I get caught’, it really is time to consider pursuing a new vocation, because you can expect to be making career killing oversteps, if not getting yourself struck off or even locked up, in pretty short order for pretty much any of the above. This movie is the first in a line of recent fictional portrayal of lawyers who are portrayed as pragmatic protagonist characters for whom the ends will ultimately justify the means. Take that attitude with you into practice, and you are doomed from the get go.
Stylish though it may be, and an extremely slick portrayal of a criminal defence attorney who just seems to know all the angles, this movie’s leading lawyer’s example isn’t just unrealistic, its utterly toxic.