What can Matt Damon, Jim Carrey and Joe Pesci teach lawyers about ethics? No, this isn’t a lawyer joke but a lot of attorneys think the answers are pretty funny.
The New York City Bar Association, the Nassau Academy of Law and the Catholic Lawyers Guild have been showing movies this month as part of their CLE offerings. And the verdict is that it’s a lot more fun than taking a CLE on “Excel Essentials for Lawyers or Paper Reduction Strategies. “(See the NYS CLE schedule for December if you insist on learning Excel or figuring out which papers you’re allowed to shred.)
“It presents a scenario that’s like real life but obviously exaggerated,” said Tyler Maulsby of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, one of the instructors at the NYC CLE. “You meet all these people and everyone says they want to be a lawyer because they read X or saw Y. Even if you have a relative who is a lawyer, the only way you reference it is that you see it on TV and it’s a nice starting point and also because it’s fun.”
While the New York City class was debating such classics as “My Cousin Vinny” and “Liar, Liar,” the Nassau County lawyers were focused on questions of existentialism after viewing scenes from Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Dr. Judah Rosenthal, played by Martin Landau, hires a killer to eliminate his lover who is threatening to expose his infidelity. Rosenthal is consumed by guilt but makes peace with it. In the last scene of the movie, he tells Woody Allen, who plays a failed filmmaker, a story, the upshot of which is that it’s possible to commit murder and have a clear conscience. Both movies are inquiries into morality.
“Some of those questions are: What are the consequences of a godless morality? Are moral judgments possible? What are the consequences of a godless morality with respect to the law, and more specifically, with respect to its formation and obedience to the law?” said Supreme Court Justice Vito DeStefano who was one of the Nassau County panelists and is also a philosophy professor.
DeStefano said he can identify with “Irrational Man” in his roles as philosophy professor and judge. “Irrational Man” is about a philosophy professor who overhears a woman in a diner talking about a judge who is going to grant custody of her children to her ex-husband. The wife says the judge favors her husband because he’s friendly with the husband’s attorney; she confesses that she wishes he’d get cancer.
The professor, Abe Lucas, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to grant her wish, killing the judge by placing cyanide in his orange juice. This gives Lucas a purpose in life, albeit an irrational one.
“’Irrational Man’ does peripherally deal with the issue of judicial misconduct and has within it the great irony that the philosophy professor who kills the judge, in a sense, did the very things that led him to kill the judge, that is hear one side of the story, act on an ex parte communication, judge unfairly,” DeStefano said, quoting the views of panelist Ken Gartner of Lynn, Gartner, Dunne & Covello.
In New York City, Maulsby is focusing on teaching ethics by making lawyers laugh. His favorite movie is “My Cousin Vinny,” which is about a brash, inexperienced New York City lawyer who sets out to defend two New Yorkers accused of murder in rural Alabama.
Pesci, playing Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, makes up a list of cases that he has tried and claims he was admitted to the bar under the name of a dead lawyer. That is a violation of Rule 8.4′s admonition against engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation. “No one is going to walk into court I hope and completely lie to the judge,” Maulsby said.
Maulsby also wants to convey how Gambini should have sought the assistance of an Alabama lawyer to help him navigate the unfamiliar legal landscape.”We’re using that as an example of how to deal with local custom,” he said. “Lawyers have to make sure they’re complying with local procedures and custom.”
A strict interpretation of ethics rules is that a lawyer can’t do anything he’s not competent to handle but it’s more nuanced than that, Maulsby said. ”That doesn’t make sense because when we first start out none of us are competent as lawyers. Lawyers are allowed to learn how to be competent.”
Jim Carrey’s “Liar, Liar,” meanwhile, is a good way to discuss candor to the tribunal. As stated in Rule 3.1: “A lawyer shall not bring or defend a proceeding, or assert or controvert an issue therein, unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous, which includes a good faith argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.” So when Carrey asks for a continuance simply because he can’t lie, let’s just say he was way out of line.
In “Anatomy of a Murder,” Jimmy Stewart encourages his client to come up with a legally justified excuse for murder. The client settles on being legally insane but lawyer Paul Biegler, played by Stewart, led him to that false conclusion.
“If you know your client is going to commit perjury, what do you do?” Maulsby asks. “You don’t have a right to testify falsely. So there’s a school of thought where you can just let your client testify in narrative form without being subject to accusations of perjury.”
Matt Damon’s “The Rainmaker” is an example of improper communication with jurors. This one is straightforward: “Communications with Jurors: When Can You Do It? (Hint: Never!)” the flyer for the program reads.
Michael Cardello III, a partner at Moritt Hock & Hamroff of Garden City, said he has never attended a CLE like the one on Woody Allen in his 20-odd years of practice. He said the panel was terrific in addressing that “‘Is there anybody out there?’ kind of feeling you get.”
“It did reinforce in me my belief in the way one should conduct him or herself in life,” he said. “It’s very important to take the high moral ground.”