Women lawyers might have a new role model. A revived Marvel comic book series heralds the re-appearance of this legal superstar. Move over Matt Murdock, the Manhattan trial lawyer who doubles as the superhero Daredevil. You now have a female counterpart at the comic book bar. Her name is Jennifer Walters, a/k/a She-Hulk, graduate of UCLA law school, member of the Order of the Coif, and she explodes gender stereotypes as she shakes up the legal establishment.
Jennifer used to be a “shy attorney, good at her job and quiet in her life.” No more; she has been transformed. Shot and critically wounded by a crime boss, Jennifer needed a blood transfusion, which she got from her cousin, scientist Dr. Bruce Banner, otherwise known as the Incredible Hulk.
She lived, but her cousin’s strange blood turned her into a “super strong, green-skinned bombshell.” She continued her legal career while spending her non-billable (pro bono?) hours working with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as a “superhero known the world over.” She appears “whenever justice is threatened” because she has the “brain and brawn” to right any wrong. In a word, she is “sensational.”
The inaugural April 2014 issue of the new She-Hulk comic series opens with a scene familiar to almost all of us. Jennifer is about to have her first annual performance review at the Manhattan law firm where she is an associate. Is she nervous? Nah, she logged over 2,800 billable hours that year. Phew! “They can’t give me a bad review,” she tells another associate. When her office mate wishes her good luck, Jennifer quips, “Luck’s for bad lawyers.”
But Jennifer’s self-confidence and brash optimism, signature character traits, are misplaced. The partners ambush her. They tell her she will get no bonus.
“That” Jennifer dumbfoundedly replies, “seems pretty ludicrous.” She reminds them of her billable hours and says “at the rate you bill me out, you must have made a million bucks off me.” To which the partners surprise her again by saying: “the number of hours you billed is irrelevant.”
“How can that be irrelevant?” a puzzled Jennifer asks. The partners’ ill-considered answer shapes Jennifer’s professional future.
“This is awkward,” mumbles one slightly uncomfortable partner, as he explains the firm’s culture. “We always hope associates understand certain things without being told.” He goes on: “To be frank, you were hired because of your connections. In this economic climate, we have to constantly seek new prominent clients.” They expected Jennifer to be a rainmaker. Adds another partner, talking to Jennifer as if she were a disappointing lateral hire, “We assumed that you would bring us business from your associations in your, ah, your other line of work. But they have yet to materialize.”
Then the crusher: “While we appreciate your diligence, Ms. Walters, you were not hired to bill hours and work cases. We have lawyers for that. We look forward to great things from you in the coming year.”
Shocked, crestfallen and feeling unappreciated, Jennifer complains, “I deserve better than this.” The partners have gone too far, and the volcano that is Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk erupts.
Furious, she points out the conference room window to Manhattan’s skyscrapers and defiantly says, “You see that? That city wouldn’t even be there if I hadn’t saved it like a hundred times. You guys would be working out of Newark [heaven forbid!]. Which isn’t even mentioning that I am a fantastic attorney, and you are lucky to have me. The last thing I’m going to do is try to make you guys more money because I happen to know a bunch of superheroes. Those relationships are sacred to me.”
Her short speech is magnificent. Every law firm associate should learn about it. It is like Patrick Henry’s “give me liberty or give me death” speech before the American Revolution. Jennifer Walters should be the patron saint of law firm associates. But inspirational speeches can have consequences.
Jennifer then does the bravest (and coolest) thing she can do. She quits. But she has not finished with them; she has a final goodbye gesture. She goes to the large conference room table made of expensive imported teak wood and, summoning her super-strength, she cracks the table in two. On that dramatic note, she storms out of the office.
. . . And into a bar downstairs to mull over what she has done. There she meets a woman looking for—surprise, surprise—a lawyer. The woman’s dead husband was an inventor whose patented work was stolen by munitions manufacturer Tony Stark, alias Ironman. Her prior lawyer filed suit, left, and she cannot find another one. Naturally the potential client has no money to pay a fee.
Turns out Jennifer knows Tony Stark. They had been romantically involved. “Going up against this guy’s pretty much career suicide,” she warns the widow. Nonetheless, Jennifer offers to talk to her ex-lover, adding that 90 percent “of lawyering is conversations.”
But getting to see Tony is not easy. When Stark’s creepy general counsel tells her to leave, she replies, “you’re the worst.” The general counsel then says, in words that echo in the chambers of many lawyers’ minds, “I am neither good nor bad. I am simply legal.”
The courtroom scene, a hearing on Jennifer’s motion for a preliminary injunction, is a classic. The judge comments on Jennifer’s prior relationship with Stark. She responds that she “is able to separate my social life from my professional obligations.”
Then Stark’s army of five lawyers, all of them sinister-looking with dark suits and dark glasses, goes into action. They have boxes of files and many piles of documents. Stark’s lead lawyer announces he is filing counterclaims and several cross-motions—to change venue, for summary judgment and to disqualify Jennifer because of her prior relationship with their boss.
While the motions are pending, Jennifer returns to Stark’s office building. Confronted by fearsome robots with standing orders to stop all adverse attorneys, Jennifer warns, “Oh, I’m not here in my legal capacity. Right now, its She-Hulk all the way.” Angry, and suddenly growing almost seven feet tall with her now too small clothes bursting at the seams, Jennifer quickly knocks out the robots and at last finds Tony Stark.
Seeing her bulked-up, an impressed Tony, perhaps with remembrances of things past, tries a pick-up line: “That’s a good look for you.” “I’m not in the mood,” she snaps. Jennifer then explains the facts of the case to Stark and shows him a smoking gun piece of evidence. This proof improbably and immediately persuades the suddenly reasonable Stark to settle the case on the spot by giving an “incredibly healthy check” to the widow.
Tony (Ironman) Stark is once again taken with Jennifer. “God, you’re magnificent,” he gushes. She, less emotional and more in control, says, “Still not in the mood, Tony, but you are not wrong.”
The newly rich widow surprises Jennifer by giving the lawyer a check for $150,000. A startled Jennifer says, “I didn’t do it to get paid.” Thus she gives the legal profession a good public image, even if a bad lesson in law firm economics. But practical Jennifer takes the check.
The story ends with Jennifer using her new-found money to open her own law office in Brooklyn. One gets the distinct feeling that Jennifer’s story as a lawyer is just beginning. Those of us who have ever hung out our own shingle root for Jennifer’s professional success. You go, girl!
This new comic book version of She-Hulk is welcome. Comics, more popular than ever, inspire and shape the outlook of many young people. It is a medium that presents heroes. Prior incarnations of She-Hulk portrayed her as a male power fantasy, a giant sexy green porn star. Now the focus is on her legal skills and her character traits. Today she is more of a nuanced feminist icon with a rounded personality, professional, smart, ambitious, independent, energetic, self-reliant, strong and courageous yet vulnerable, rational even when angry, in control of her personal life, and witty, with a sharp edge and high self-esteem.
We are not surprised to learn that the writer of this new comic strip, Charles Soule, is a lawyer. “That’s a side of my life I don’t always associate with pure creativity,” he says. “Figuring out how to fit legal situations into a superhero context has been a blast.” He will have Jennifer/She-Hulk “fighting evil everywhere from the boardroom to the Bowery, using her mind as much as her fists.”
Maybe we will soon be lucky enough to see Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk and Matt Murdock/Daredevil as courtroom adversaries. Then we would all learn something about trial tactics. In the meantime, if Jennifer ever considers merging her law firm to achieve economies of scale and joining with a like-minded operation, she should call us. We like and admire this superlawyer, who happens to be female.
Daniel Kornstein is a partner in Kornstein, Veisz, Wexler & Pollard.