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From “Witness for the Prosecution” to “Twelve Angry Men,” from “The Verdict” to “The Firm,” movies about lawyers occupy an honored niche in cinema. While the best of these movies present universal themes, their character depictions have always been literal. Unlike Captain Ahab, who is more than a sea captain, or Sir Lancelot, who is more than a knight, lawyers are always just what they appear to be: lawyers. That is what makes Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” so innovative an addition to the genre. Though superficially about Roman gladiators, the movie is actually about lawyers. It is based on “Litigator,” Max I. Moskowitz’s autobiographical account of his expulsion from his law firm and the subsequent resurrection of his professional career. Scott tells the story of Moskowitz, legal empire builder and litigator, in the form of an allegory about a man named Maximus, Roman general and gladiator. This daring cinematic gambit has resonated with audiences. When “Gladiator” premiered before a select audience of attorneys, the viewers cheered lustily, pounded their briefcases with their fists, and, at the film’s conclusion, rose in unison and gave the “thumbs up” signal. At the start of the millennium, Moskowitz is at the height of his powers, the unchallenged rainmaker of his firm. Moskowitz’s career has been mentored by the firm’s founder, Callaghan I, but his rise has earned him the enmity of the founder’s jealous son. Dispatched by the management committee to expand the firm’s business, Moskowitz has conquered the Silicon Valley, bringing in client after client, and driving out or absorbing the New York firms that had migrated into the Valley from the East. Scott travels back in time to the start of another millennium and represents Moskowitz as Maximus, the Roman general who has conquered Gaul for Marcus Aurelius, his emperor and sponsor. The movie begins with Maximus at the head of his legions in a forest, awaiting battle with the last force of resisting barbarians. Suddenly a Roman cavalryman emerges from the morning mists, galloping toward the Roman lines. As he nears, the viewer sees that he is headless. Then the viewer sees the barbarian chief brandishing the unfortunate emissary’s head, which he proceeds to toss defiantly at the Romans. Maximus and his men recognize this gesture as a signal that negotiations have failed. Scott bases this scene on an incident in Moskowitz’s autobiography in which he attempts to negotiate a merger with the last remaining New York outpost in Silicon Valley. As he waits nervously in his hotel suite for a response to his merger proposal, he looks out his window and sees his associate jogging toward him. As the associate nears, Moskowitz sees with horror that the associate’s Versace glasses are shattered and his tailored suit ripped neatly down the middle. Tearfully, the associate tells Moskowitz that the New York lawyers have taken his Palm Pilot and won’t give it back. Moskowitz understands that his proposal has been rejected. He immediately barrages the New Yorkers with faxes offering sweet deals to their senior associates and lateral positions for their junior partners. By nightfall, Moskowitz has reduced this last redoubt of resistance to a branch office of his firm. In “Gladiator,” Maximus looks forward to returning to Rome, to his farm and family, after subduing the barbarians. In “Litigator,” Moskowitz, who has been living out of hotel rooms for three years, longs to return to San Francisco, rejoin his family and rebuild his practice. Both face disappointment and betrayal. Maximus is betrayed by Commodus, the jealous son of Marcus Aurelius. Commodus murders his father, then has Maximus arrested and slated for execution. Maximus escapes, but he cannot save his family, whom Commodus butchers. Maximus ends up sold to the owner of a gladiator troop in the distant provinces. Revenge against Commodus becomes his sole ambition. To achieve it, Maximus disguises his identity and embraces the life of a gladiator. Scott’s plot parallels Moskowitz’s account of his own return and exile. Moskowitz had hoped to find an increased equity share and a corner office waiting for him upon his return to San Francisco. He had dreamed of spending more time with his family and maybe even doing some pro bono work. Instead, he finds that Callaghan II, the son of the managing partner, has engineered the forced retirement of his father and manipulated the management committee against him. Moskowitz is accused of padding his expense account and stealing firm property. Expelled from his firm and facing ethics charges before the California Bar Professional Responsibility Committee, Moskowitz rushes back to his home in Piedmont, Calif., to protect his family. He is too late. A team of law firm investigators sent by Callaghan II has arrived first and ransacked the house, seizing legal pads, diskettes, pens, paper clips and other firm property. Convinced that he cannot get a fair hearing in San Francisco, Moskowitz escapes to Bakersfield, a rustic Central Valley, California town far from the opulent splendor of San Francisco. Since he has failed to appear at the State Bar hearing, he is disbarred and must now practice under an assumed name. Ridley Scott deftly intertwines Moskowitz’s account of exile and resurrection with the tale of Maximus. Both men find themselves displaced from their former positions of honor and power, forced to lead furtive lives, driven only by revenge. Maximus wins fight after brutal fight in the arena. His delighted owner moves the gladiator troop closer and closer to Rome, where the money is better. Moskowitz wins trial after trial in the Central Valley. His early cases are of the whiplash and slip-and-fall variety, but as his reputation grows, so does the size of his cases. Gradually, he moves his practice northward, to Modesto, to Stockton and finally to San Francisco, where the money is better. Meanwhile, Commodus is leading a corrupt and debauched life as emperor of Rome. The city yearns for a reformer, a man who can restore Rome to its former Republican glory. In “Litigator,” Callaghan II is ruining his father’s firm. He and his cronies on the management committee have seized all the best corner offices and have voted themselves huge profit shares. The top associates and junior partners have left, and those remaining desperately hope for a savior for their tottering firm. Both tales end with climactic confrontations. In “Litigator,” Moskowitz is called in at the last minute to try a major intellectual property case in San Francisco. On the eve of trial, he meets with opposing counsel, who turns out to be none other than Callaghan II. In their dramatic clash, Moskowitz, who has been practicing for years under an assumed name, reveals his true identity to his former partner — who promptly stabs him in the back. In “Gladiator,” Maximus must fight a final battle in the coliseum with his nemesis. Just before the duel, Commodus visits Maximus in his underground chamber. In the guise of a brotherly embrace, Commodus stabs him in the back. This “stabbing in the back” metaphor is one of Ridley Scott’s few dramatic devices which critics have faulted. Until that scene, his allegorical technique is symbolic and subtle. When Commodus knifes Maximus, however, Scott descends to literalism. “After all,” as one San Francisco Bay Area lawyer and film critic has noted, “stabbing each other in the back is just what partners tend to do to one another.” The destruction of the heroes dooms their respective civilizations. Rome declines into despotism. Moskowitz’s firm loses partners and clients. Ultimately, much diminished, the firm is overrun and absorbed by a horde of barbaric litigators from New York. One sign of the success of Ridley Scott’s allegorical device is that it is already being imitated. Brawny trial lawyers now swagger into court with undisguised belligerence, and some have taken to wearing breastplates in place of vests. Judges are not immune. In some courts, following a heated exchange between litigators, judges, instead of ruling from the bench, now look to the rowdy, chanting lawyers in the gallery. A thumbs up signal means a ruling for the movant; thumbs down means the respondent prevails. The Roman influence has also seeped into our own imperial capital. During the penalty phase of the Microsoft antitrust case, Justice Department lawyers urged splitting the company in two. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson stunned the courtroom by uttering: “Gallia est omnis divisa partes tres.” Lawrence J. Siskind, of San Francisco’s Harvey Siskind Jacobs, specializes in intellectual property law.

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