Everything I need to know, I learned from the movies (except for the actual Law School stuff)

It’s almost autumn, when a young girl’s fancy turns to movies. Maybe it’s the changing leaves, resplendent in the colours of a Woody Allen set. Or the start of another school year, which brings to mind The Breakfast Club, Rushmore and, erm, Animal House. Most likely it’s the deluge of press, the throngs of cinephiles and the parade of stars descending on our city to mark another Toronto International Film Festival.

 The conflict and complexity of legal disputes means that each film festival brings no shortage of courtroom dramas and “based on true story” accounts of what lawyers do. It seems wholly appropriate, then, that we use the 2010 Toronto Film Festival as an opportunity to present my top picks for instructive law movies. A film primer to litigation, if you will.

 To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Gregory Peck’s turn as Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the segregated US South, is a personified example of the epitome of a lawyer. Ethical, upstanding and unafraid to defend his client with unwavering conviction, Atticus Finch champions the rights of a black man accused of raping a white woman. This, despite the disapproval, contempt and threats of his townsmen. This is the passion that lawyers strive to bring to their files and why, at our firm, we work so closely with our clients—sometimes doing what is unusual or unpopular—to do what is right and just in the circumstances.

 Legally Blonde (2001): Harvard Law School gets a dash of high-heeled pink-clad common sense when sorority girl Elle Woods drives up in Barbie’s dream convertible. Elle Woods epitomizes the reality that legal smarts and courtroom skill are not reserved for people who are, as the movie tells us, “ugly and boring”. She exemplifies the fact that the face of legal practice has changed and that the image of the old gray besuited lawyer is an outdated archetype of legal competence. In other words, we are a pretty bunch with the brains and brawn to do right by our clients. Even if our cases hinge on the chemical composition of a perm.

 Adam’s Rib (1949): The inimitable pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as husband-and-wife lawyers acting for the defence and the prosecution of a wife accused of shooting her husband. Through the course of trial, the accused is perceived as a mad woman, a feminist hero, a victim of her husband’s drunken temper and a fool. Adam’s Rib underlines the impact that the impression made by a client can have on the court and on the outcome of a trial. The words and behaviour of a client are critical components in court strategy. It’s why we work so closely with clients before court appearances. After all, a new hat is unlikely to get you far in business litigation.

 Erin Brockovich (2000): Erin Brockovich is a well-endowed saucily-dressed legal assistant railing against an energy company that, having polluted the groundwater of a California town, launches a campaign of deception to outrun the limitations period. Local judges hearing the motions brought by the company are disgusted by what they describe is an attack against their neighbours, buoying the underdog Erin Brockovich to success and showing us that there are variables in the courtroom for which even the best lawyer cannot prepare. While we can anticipate bias, experience teaches us the importance of flexibility to adapt our litigation strategy to a certain judge, sitting on a specific date, and having a particular kind of day.

 For me, these movies serve as a handbook for navigating the experience of bringing unique cases with unique characters to a satisfying legal conclusion. On any day and in any circumstances, I am Atticus Finch, Elle Woods, or Erin Brockovich. It is this understanding of the human condition and application of common sense that generate results for our clients as we bring their legal disputes to “the end.” For my part at least, done, naturally, while high-heeled and pink-clad.

Ann A. Hatsios, J.D. , Litigator