Lessons Learned from Fictional Attorneys

Does a rational person really expect to find professional advice from fictional lawyers? Not likely. Even so, fictional attorneys and stories often convey lessons that both reflect the legal profession and even change it. Sometimes these legal characters are a source of inspiration, encouragement, and role-modeling. And other times, of course, these make-believe attorneys are only caricatures — ensuring that real lawyers don’t take themselves too seriously. Let’s look at a few…

“Better Call Saul”

Viewers of the “Breaking Bad” television series are familiar with Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman, as in “s’all good, man”) — the crooked lawyer who becomes partner-in-crime to drug kingpin Walter White. But many “Breaking Bad” fans don’t know Saul’s backstory. “Better Call Saul” chronicles this bumbling lawyer’s painfully funny descent — the long-and-winding-road that led him to the wrong side of the law. The series is must-see television for anyone in the legal profession.

Episodes from “Better Call Saul” constitute a handbook on how not to practice law, as much of Saul’s behavior is blatantly illegal. But this series contains many subtler messages. Like how little white lies and other unethical behaviors were the “starter drugs” that led to his habitual embrace of criminal practices. The lesson we’ve chosen here comes not from “Saul” but from his by-the-rules brother — who also is a lawyer:

“You know, Jimmy, sometimes in our line of work, you can get so caught up in the idea of winning that you forget to listen to your heart.”

What Legal Characters Shaped The Views of Your Manager?

In contrast to the timely, pop-culture appeal of “Better Call Saul,” we’re highlighting two timeless, “classic” movie characters and cultural references that newer law-school graduates might not recognize. Why include these “dated” characters? Because they shaped a generation’s views (including those held by your manager and the judges you face?) about what it means to be a lawyer. Nota bene.

“To Kill A Mockingbird”

Author Harper Lee grew up in depression-era Alabama, attended law school, and wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” This blockbuster novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and is widely taught in American high schools. This story features Atticus Finch, a small-town attorney who confronts racism and prejudice in a pre-Civil-Rights-Movement America.

Mockingbird teaches important lessons about tolerance, respect, bravery in holding unpopular beliefs, and the importance of education in understanding (and combatting) prejudice. This story is also a testament to one attorney’s integration of personal and professional values. As stated by the unforgettable Atticus Finch:

“…they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions…but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“The Paper Chase”

“The Paper Chase” chronicles the struggle and transformation of a first-year Harvard Law School student with a drill-sargent professor.

It was first a novel and later a television series, but it’s the movie version we’re celebrating here. In this 1973 film, Actor John Houseman’s portrayal of Professor Kingsfield became an archetype of the demanding instructor who defined the freshman law school experience for many who practice law today.

Here’s a quote from the immortal Kingsfield: “You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

This movie (now more than 40 years old) will strike today’s new lawyers as a snapshot from a different era. But does age make it irrelevant? Watch this movie with other legal professionals. Enjoy their stories about professors whose pointed questions (and hide-the-ball techniques) taught them to “think like a lawyer.”

If you’ve been inspired by these fictional attorneys and want to get into the legal field, or make a transition, contact Special Counsel to see what positions we have available!

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