Thursday, March 4, 2010

Can Lawyers on The Big Screen Help Your Practice?

As a law student in New York, I had the wonderful opportunity to cross paths with a guy named Ron Mombello. Mr. Mombello is an exceptional acting coach who was being hired by law firms to help their associates develop better presentation skills. A former writer for the I Love Lucy Show, Ron was being sought out by top NY firms to help mold good associates into great litigators. Ron turned his experiences into a take home course and book entitled "How to Be a Better Attorney" The book includes some wonderful illustrations from Zachary Pullen. I recently thought of Ron as I was sitting in court watching a newly minted attorney struggle through a civil trial. He had a sound argument, but it seemed to get lost in his presentation. From my point of view, he was losing the jury. From the peanut gallery I heard the comment "This guy could use some acting lessons." The comment reminded me of my old friend Ron. I decided to track him down and asked him if he wouldn't mind writing something for my blog. I extend my thanks to him for obliging my request. __________________________________________ ON THE AISLE: GUILTY OR NOT GUILTY By Guest author Ron Mombello

From 1957 to 1966, many of us grew up with TV's Perry Mason, a defense attorney extraordinaire, and, every week we'd watch as this intelligent legal mind would isolate "the bad guy" from a field of suspects.

Perry did his homework, he knew the law, he researched the decisions upon which his cases would depend, his cross-examinations were formidable and concise, and he clarified, patiently, what the jury needed to know. He litigated with a respect for his profession, and, with a strong set of ethics, he maneuvered, effectively, in the courtroom.

Yes, Mr. Mason was a fictional character. The cases he tried were make-believe, but Perry set a standard for the attorney-client relationship and for how courtroom behavior should be. He exemplified a competent, concerned, considerate, courteous, and caring member of the Bar.

Mason was portrayed by the now-deceased-but-never-forgotten Raymond Burr, and this actor convinced us that this was the way an attorney should be. He raised the bar for how real lawyers, out there negotiating real cases, should be. His became the persona of what the best in the legal profession should be.

Attorneys and actors have much in common. Each must engage an audience, each must communicate on some essential level with that audience, and each must have an indelible impact on that audience. Influenced by what they've seen on TV or on the Big Screen, a jury will, undeniably, measure a lawyer's "performance" by some preconceived notion, and, probably, in more cases than one might imagine, they'll expect a Raymond Burr or a Sam Waterston from "Law and Order." They'll expect a Gregory Peck, an Orson Welles, a Tom Cruise, a Katharine Hepburn, or a Glenn Close.

Yes, attorneys and actors DO have much in common, and , in films that center on a court drama, it is an actor who might set the standard for how a competent attorney should be. If, in any real-life situation, attorneys are monotonous, if they use poor diction, if their speech isn't clear, if they have not mastered "the art of memorization," if they have not made a commitment to be extraordinary, if they clutter testimony with information that is confusing, if they speak as if they are reading when, in fact, they are, if they lack sincerity or speak with condescension, and if they pump themselves up with self-importance, a jury will, undoubtedly, compare this to the better actor's performance they have admired. The real attorney's effectiveness will, undoubtedly, be impaired.

It's true that fiction, crammed into a 2-hour film, can be made more engaging, entertaining, and efficient than the fact-based dramas that unfold, daily, in our real courtrooms, but must this be, totally, so? Aren't there some valuable lessons that the attorneys should learn from their compatriots, the best actors in the business, and, practicing these, shouldn't attorneys be able to turn in, consistently, Oscar performances as their counterparts, professional actors, attempt to do? Shouldn't real attorneys speak clearly, concisely, and in a way that will be understood by a jury, shouldn't the body language of the attorney communicate confidence, and, with a voice that is focused, shouldn't any better attorney command attention?

The answers, here, are, of course, a resounding "Yes!."

If the lawyer wants to be a positive example for his vocational peers, if that lawyer wants to change the negative imprints others may have of his profession, and if that same lawyer wants to be better in his defense or prosecution of others, what better way than to emulate the expert techniques of our legendary actors?

Let's take a closer look at some of the extraordinary portrayals of the men and women involved in the practice of law:

1. "To Kill A Mockingbird" - It's 1932, a time in the deep South when the lines between a white man and a black one were strictly drawn. Atticus Finch, in an Award Performance by Gregory Peck, believes that the quality of the man reflects the quality of his practice of the law and that you can never understand a person until you first consider his point of view. A black man is accused of rape, and, when asked, "Why are you defending a black man?, Atticus replies, "If I didn't I couldn't hold my head up high!"

2. "Inherit The Wind" - The time is early in the 20th Century. Bertrum Cates is teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and the townsfolk of Hillsboro, Bible stompers to the core, are up in arms. In performances that rock the Big Screen, Spencer Tracy, as Henry Drummond, and Frederik March, as Matthew Brady, oppose each other. Henry puts a man's right to think on trial, while Matthew tries to elevate Biblical scripture to an irrefutable position in the World.

3. "Anatomy of a Murder" - It's the 1950s in Iron City, Michigan, and the conflict in Korea lingers. Paul Biegler, portrayed expertly by James Stewart, loves the dusty stacks of law books that line his office, and he thrives on the musty smell they create. In a case of rape and murder, Paul will challenge the court to accept "irresistible impulse" as a justification for murder.

4. "The Verdict" - It could be "anytime" in Boston, Massachusetts where Francis P. Galvin, an alcoholic, an ambulance chaser, and a nearly washed up attorney, portrayed brilliantly by Paul Newman, takes on a medical malpractice case. Between daily shots of booze, spraying his mouth with fresheners, filling his eyes with clearing drops, and plopping raw eggs into his beer, Frank still believes he can win this one. In an example-setting performance, Frank will demonstrate than change for the better is possible.

5. "Witness For The Prosecution" - A champion of "the hopeless cause, Sir Winfred, played commandingly by Charles Laughton in a delightfully crustymanner, will defend Leonard Vole for beating a wealthy widow to death. Thiscase will depend on the testimony of Mrs. Vole, played with dramatic flair byMarlene Dietrich, and we'll wonder if this barrister will be outsmarted by her.

6. "A Few Good Men" – On the U.S. Military Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a Marine private is killed as a result of a Code Red, that hazing given to goof-offs, that punishment given to those who think of themselves before they consider The Corps. JAG Lt. Daniel Caffey, played with competence by Tom Cruise, is sent in for the defense, and the case boils down to "If an order is given by a superior officer must it be obeyed?"

To this list of superior courtroom dramas, we should add the following:

"Judgment At Nuremberg," starring Spencer Tracy as the Chief Justice of a Tribunal appointed to determine the fate of Nazi judges after World War II,

"Compulsion," starring Orson Welles as a lawyer who fights against capital punishment,

"The Caine Mutiny," starring Humphrey Bogart as Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, who, because of cowardice, had been relieved of command according to Article 184 of U.S, Navy Regulations,

"And Justice For All," starring Al Pacino as an ethical lawyer who fights for a client who, because of mistaken identity, had been kept in jail for 6 months,

"A Dry White Season," starring Marlon Brando as a human rights attorney in South Africa during the years of Apartheid,

"Suspect," starring Cher as a Public Defender fighting for a homeless man accused of murder,

"Jagged Edge," with an intelligent performance by Glenn Close as a criminal trial attorney,

"Presumed Innocent," written by lawyer-turned-author Scott Turow and starring Harrison Ford as a man accused of rape and murder,

"Twilight of Honor," starring Claude Rains, one of the 20th Century's best actors, as a patriarchal lawyer, and

"Adam's Rib," starring Katharine Hepburn as a defense attorney and a die-hard woman's rights advocate and Spencer Tracy, as her husband and an old-fashioned prosecuting attorney.

Studying each of these acting performances should, undeniably, provide the impetus for attorneys to raise the bar of their competence and become THE BETTER ATTORNEY.


Editors note: I encourage you to check out for more info on Ron Mombello's program. By taking the course, Mombello believes students will learn how to focus their voice, engage others, avoid cluttering testimony with confusing language, develop improvisational skills, and communicate confidence with appropriate body language. More importantly, the course is designed to work around any busy schedule and could be done at home. In my opinion, a little self improvement never hurt anyone. And with this course, you can even get CLE Credits.


Anonymous said...

Great points. I know of several lawyers that could use this course. They need to put more emphasis on their presentation skills. Dreadful courtroom decorum.

Rich said...

This is a great post. I particularly enjoyed the comments about "Perry Mason," as the truth is that Raymond Burr's portrayal inspired me to decide that I wanted to be a lawyer, when I was 7 years old!