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Beware of choosing your profession from the movies. Even people who haven’t seen “Erin Brockovich” have seen a reasonable facsimile of Erin Brockovich, thanks to the modern wonders of the push-up bra. And with the recent Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, you surely will be seeing lots more of Julia Roberts and her cleavage. The movie, about a small California town devastated by a contaminated water supply thanks to chemical seepage from PG&E, is based on a true story. But how realistic were Brockovich’s career moves? Could a real-life paralegal get away with such low-cut, see-through blouses? “Probably not,” says Dina Werfel, an attorney and legal recruiter with Mestel & Company in New York. “I heard that she actually did wear that stuff in real life,” says Werfel. “But the way she dressed would never be tolerated, at least not in a New York law firm. Her skirts were way too short and her bra was showing most of the time. If someone showed up at work dressed like that, they would certainly be spoken to.” In fact, her boss told Brockovich that her provocative outfits made the office secretaries uncomfortable. Her response? “As long as I have one ass instead of two, I will dress as I please.” Werfel did find the office women’s cattiness to be an accurate depiction of law firm politics, however, citing jealousy as the probable motive for their not inviting Brockovich out to lunch with “the girls.” But Werfel’s biggest beef with the movie, which she says she enjoyed, was the ease and speed with which Brockovich got things done, specifically finding the crucial documents at the water plant. “It takes a long time to find the smoking gun,” says Werfel. “In fact, no one ever really finds the smoking gun. It’s usually more like cumulative evidence. I think the facility with which she finds this one document is unrealistic.” John Baxter, a securities attorney at Bondholder Communications Group agrees, saying Brockovich lucked out with an odd lot of favorable circumstances: The water plant is out in the boondocks, has no security and is manned by a single teen who is overcome by appreciation for Brockovich’s visible charms. But the way Roberts waltzes in and effortlessly finds the incriminating evidence, is “absurd,” says Baxter, adding he wouldn’t be surprised if that whole story thread was fabricated. BEARING WITNESS Werfel found the eagerness and frankness of the witnesses and experts equally unrealistic. “Do you know how long it would take to get a witness like that to talk to you?” says Werfel of the science professor who appears out of nowhere and supplies Roberts with all the right information. “People don’t want to talk, especially not on the record,” Werfel says. “Yet, they seem to go on the record quite easily for Brockovich, and I don’t think it was just her breasts.” (When Brockovich’s boss asks her how she finagled her way into the archives, she says, “They’re called boobs, Ed.”) Not only would a paralegal or lawyer find it difficult to find a willing witness, even if she were quite busty, but he or she would also have difficulty understanding what the witness is actually talking about. Werfel comments that it normally takes time for a layperson to understand sophisticated scientific data. The movie, however, does not allow for that learning curve. The immediacy of Brockovich’s grasp of the culprit toxin, Chromium 6, and all its components, is nothing short of miraculous. STEREOTYPING The movie also perpetuates stereotypes about the legal industry. When the lawyers for PG&E come in for negotiations, they are depicted as the quintessential “bad” lawyers. “PG&E’s lawyers didn’t put the chromium in the water,” says Werfel. “They are just representing their company and doing the best job that they can.” In fact, most of the other lawyers depicted are also cardboard cutouts. The redheaded junior lawyer, depicted as cold and austere, was an unfair assessment, says Baxter. When the junior lawyer informs Brockovich that she’ll need to get phone numbers for each and every plaintiff on file, Brockovich stares her down, challenging her to pick a file, any file, wherein she’ll happily summon the number instantaneously from her memory. “Brockovich’s ability to memorize the phone numbers and medical histories of literally hundreds of plaintiffs is an impractical and mostly superfluous talent that is presented as some sort of virtue lacking in the legal profession,” says Baxter. “Sure it’s important to know your subject so cold you can cite it from memory,” he says, “but it’s also dangerous territory. With legal malpractice hanging over your head, you need to check your facts every five minutes. Preparation is the meat and potatoes of law.” And, her rote knowledge of all the phone numbers is an irresponsible and self-important act. How well documented can that information be if Brockovich suddenly got amnesia or worse, died? At one point in the film, Brockovich accuses lawyers of “complicating things that aren’t complicated.” And in reading some of the gobbledy-gook many lawyers try to pass off as legalese, one might be tempted to agree with that statement. But, for all its entertainment value, this movie simplifies things that aren’t simple.

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