Is it possible for a lawyer also to be a superhero?
Comic book superheroes often lead double lives. They have secret identities and other, more mundane day jobs. Spiderman, for example, is a young newspaper photographer. Superman is a mild-mannered journalist. Batman is a wealthy playboy. The Incredible Hulk is a scientist. Ironman is a munitions manufacturer.
So far, no lawyers.
But, wait, there is one superhero whose secret identity is, of all things, an attorney. Daredevil is his name, and trial law is his game. Matt Murdock, successful Manhattan trial lawyer, is Daredevil’s alter ego. Clad in a form-fitting red costume with the large letters DD on his chest, Daredevil is a martial arts expert, an agile, acrobatic crime-fighter known around town as “The Man Without Fear.” He happens to be blind, and no one suspects a blind lawyer is the amazing Daredevil.
Created decades ago, this comic book lawyer-superhero has had a complicated existence, a braid of light and dark strands. Not all of it is logical or even sensible, but, hey, remember, we are dealing with a comic book character. Here, as elsewhere in the world of art and fancy, we should willingly suspend disbelief. With that caveat, we can glean from the arc of his comic book life some of Daredevil’s biography, especially as it bears on his legal career.
Matt Murdock was born and bred in Manhattan. He was raised in Hell’s Kitchen (when Hell’s Kitchen really was a tough neighborhood) by his father, a down-and-out boxer. Matt worked hard in school and trained on his father’s gym equipment.
Murdock’s superpowers grew out of an accident. While walking down a street in his neighborhood one day, Matt, then a teenager, saw a blind man about to get hit by a truck. Matt saved the blind man by pushing him out of the way. But the truck spilled some of its cargo, radioactive waste, in Matt’s eyes, permanently blinding him.
His vision gone, Matt, like Oedipus and Gloucester and blind Justice, developed compensatory sensitivity. Murdock’s other senses became heightened so that he had true insight and could “see” better. He was able to “see” using a bat-like “radar” sense that showed outlines and shapes. This radar sense also allowed him to understand anatomy so he could strike weak spots in the human body to beat tougher opponents.
The radiation also may have improved his mind, allowing him to retain information easily. He graduated at the top of his class from Columbia Law School and right away formed a law partnership with one of his classmates (who later became a prosecutor).
While Matt was in law school, something happened that turned him into the Daredevil. His father was murdered. After law school graduation, Matt avenged his father’s death. He made the distinctive Daredevil costume and brought the murderers to justice. Thus “The Man Without Fear” was born.
As Daredevil, Matt became a vigilante of sorts. During off-hours he policed Hell’s Kitchen and beyond. His growing reputation as a scourge of criminals made him powerful underworld enemies, with memorable names like Kingpin and Bullseye.
Murdock’s professional career as a lawyer is checkered. He was so late to his first client meeting with his fellow superheroes the Fantastic Four (who had legal questions about their lease) that those potential clients went to another lawyer. The Fantastic Four did not know that Murdock was late only because he was foiling a burglary at the Fantastic Four’s building.
But he soon builds a solid reputation in the legal community and reaps his rewards. Known primarily as a stylishly dressed criminal defense attorney, he is a skilled lawyer and has “encyclopedic knowledge” of law and New York statutes in particular. He can tell whether a person is lying by listening to changes in their heartbeat, or by smelling their sweat when they are under pressure, not a bad attribute for a lawyer. He is financially successful and lives in an “inconspicious” three-story townhouse on East 66th Street, which also houses a private gym and Daredevil’s headquarters.
From time to time, however, Matt runs into serious professional problems. At one point, falsely charged by archenemy Kingpin with bribing witnesses, Matt is disbarred. He avoids prison, but his reputation as a lawyer is, at least temporarily, ruined.
In later comics, Matt is inexplicably back practicing law again. (This is the comics, remember, not everything is consistent.) He starts a new law firm, but his partner is accused of the rape and murder of a woman with whom he is having an affair. Matt then, for some reason, gets fired from the firm.
His cases are often weird. When his secret identity is discovered, the media goes public with it. He sues the press for that disclosure—and wins! In another case, a criminal defendant tutored by Matt is doing well representing himself at his trial when the judge interrupts the proceeding and shoots the defendant dead in court.
Daredevil has weaknesses too. His superhuman senses make him extraordinarily vulnerable to excessive sound and odors, which can temporarily weaken his radar sense. Too much sound all at once will immobilize Daredevil, causing him great pain and disorienting him. His blindness prevents him from discerning pictures or videos images, and he can only guess at colors based on the heat they absorb or reflect.
His weaknesses are not only physical. Some foibles are emotional. Like many lawyers, he is occasionally hostile and unable to be logically reasoned with. Sound familiar?
He also has a weakness for women. His love life is at least as active as his law practice or his crime-fighting. He becomes involved with his secretary (an ex-drug addict and a porn star with HIV); a former college girlfriend; a superhero called Elektra (with whom he teams up for a while); a beautiful Russian superhero known as the Black Widow; a gorgeous, mentally ill, violent assassin called Typhoid Mary; and several others. These are not your father’s comic books.
Like a character in The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a great 19th-century English detective novel, Murdock is “a barrister by profession; a ladies’ man by temperament; and a good Samaritan by choice.”
But Matt Murdock aka Daredevil aka successful New York lawyer is, alas, only a comic book superhero. He is complicated, not without flaws, but he is a hero. So, hero up, lawyers!
Are there any real lawyer superheroes? We all may have some candidates. Most lawyers—most human beings—even the best, are complicated, with good and bad traits, but some still tilt decidedly to the plus side.
The next time you see a young child playing with a superhero action figure, think of Matt Murdock, alias Daredevil. Who knows, the next time you appear in court, some onlooker may whisper admiringly, “Here comes Daredevil, the lawyer without fear.”
Daniel Kornstein is a partner at Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard.