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by Vault Law Editors | April 07, 2009

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Only in days like these, with BigLaw convention turned on its head, do we look to Hollywood for clarity. The Good, the Bad and the Fugly:

Lawyer Character: Jake Brigance, A Time to Kill

Played by: Matthew McConaughey

Synopsis: Convinces a Mississippi jury to acquit an indigent Samuel L. Jackson for killing two hillbillies who brutally assaulted and attempted to murder his young daughter. Engages in witty banter with Oliver Platt while deciding if he digs assistant Sandra Bullock more than wife Ashley Judd. Also fends off the KKK. Has a very faithful dog.

Contemporary BigLaw Relevance: Lawyer embraces a newfound attraction to pro bono work. Other qualities include snazzy threads and a meticulously practiced coif.

Jumps the Shark When: Brigance seems to abandon his ‘temporary insanity’ reasoning in his closing remarks, instead asking the jurors to confront their own racist tendencies and sympathize with his client.

Obstacle Overcome: Counters Platt’s distracting, boozy influence with Donald Sutherland’s sagacious, boozy influence.

Reward: Gets to hang with Sam Jackson at a post-trial barbecue. Their families instantly become best friends.

Real-Life BigLaw Döppelganger: A young Morris Dees. Like Brigance a well-groomed Southern boy, Dees sold a lucrative publishing business to join the fight for racial equality and combat hate crimes in post-Civil-Rights-Act Dixie; Dees eventually co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he continues to serve as chief trial counsel. Also, like Brigance, a favorite target of white supremacist ire.

Common Thread: Brigance has a devil of a time out-smirking prosecutor Kevin Spacey.

The Verdict: GOOD LAWYER.

Lawyer Character: John Milton, The Devil’s Advocate

Played by: Al Pacino

Synopsis: Recruits a small-town defense gunner played by Keanu Reeves to leave Florida and join his big Manhattan firm, then proceeds to work him without respite on ethically dubious cases with otherworldly undercurrents. Eventually most of the good guys go crazy and die. Also, Milton is Keanu’s father and Satan.

Contemporary BigLaw Relevance: Lawyer experiences cutthroat competition to make partner. Egomaniacal chairman works newbies raw.

Jumps the Shark When: Milton takes the subway. Aaas if. Also when Craig T. Nelson is cast in a serious role.

Obstacle Overcome: The firm’s managing partner thinks Keanu is gunning for his job. So Milton has the guy killed. Keanu becomes managing partner.

Reward: Milton gets to spend more time corrupting Keanu and less time dealing with Whatshisface.

Real-life BigLaw Döppelganger: OK, let’s be honest here—for all the oft-deserved criticism heaped upon certain firms and their defining egos, nobody’s actually as consistently malevolent as Satan him(her?)self. With that disclaimer, we’ll go with Marc Dreier and a big, fat asterisk*: Dreier, like Milton, held unchecked power within his firm, with nary an esteemed voice of reason in his ear to question his alleged scheming leadership decisions. Dreier, also like Milton, destroyed those around him in his own quest for fame and fortune. He also cleans up well, carries an intense air of authority, and has legendary eyebrows.

Common Thread: Milton is literally the devil.

The Verdict: BAD LAWYER.

- posted by ben fuchs

* = Marc Dreier is not literally Satan.

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