Americans get most of their information about lawyers and law from television and the movies. Unfortunately these popular narratives misinform us at least as much as they enlighten us. Take, for instance, the “jury trial” around which most plots revolve. Jury trials with their crisp cross-examinations and eloquent pleas to the jury make for great entertainment, but in fact are rare in the real world where endless discovery usually leads to negotiated settlements.
That’s why I so much like Steven Soderbergh’s movie Erin Brockovich . It shows us the things that “real” lawyers do. You remember Erin (Julia Roberts), the unemployed mother of three kids who shames personal injury lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney) into giving her a job as a file clerk in his law office. Erin starts looking through the files of a “pro bono” case that has come into the office and ends up developing it into a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the giant California utility PG&E for first polluting the drinking water of residents of a small town and then lying to them about it.
Of course, Erin is not technically a “lawyer”; she never attended law school. But her experience illustrates that many of the attributes good lawyers demonstrate in their work are learned well before law school. For instance, one of Erin’s greatest professional strengths is stamina. She personally interviews hundreds of people in developing the case. And even though she tends to have a short fuse with superiors, Erin has a good knowledge of human nature in how it affects people who have faced (like herself) a lot of trouble in life. Erin’s empathy for the underdog allows her to connect with the trauma experienced by these potential clients.
And she’s also savvy enough to use a beautiful woman’s power over a low level male county employee in getting access to incriminating records she needs for her case. Erin even shows herself an able advocate in explaining to her clients the economic realities behind Masry’s contingent fee contract. Perhaps most importantly, Erin has a passion for justice. PG&E has cynically damaged her clients, and Erin won’t stop until it pays the price.
But, of course, a passion for justice is only one of the lawyerly virtues. A good lawyer needs a lot of other more prosaic skills. And that’s why it’s lucky that fate has teamed Erin up with Ed Masry. Brockovich and Masry’s talents are as different as their physical shapes. She’s long and lean; he’s short and round But Ed brings to the case certain skills Erin does not possess. As might be expected, one of Masry’s contributions is knowledge of the law—matters like statutes of limitations and the proof requirements for punitive damages.
But he possesses other skills that are not solely legal in nature. Masry knows that the lawsuit is more than a crusade of good against evil. It’s a business venture that can end happily or sadly for both lawyer and client depending on the savvy the lawyer shows. Masry knows that they are entering into a long war with a very wealthy adversary in which strategy and financial resources will play the decisive role. So while Erin is demanding justice, Ed Masry is strategizing on how to structure a case that will attain that illusive goal.
And while Erin shows great ability in managing the clients, Ed shows similar human relations skills in managing his talented associate. Erin has more than a littIle bit of an “anger” problem, but Masry doesn’t allow her antics to blind him to her intelligence or work ethic. He gives her free rein to develop the case, listens to her views, and even has the capacity to change his mind when he sees she’s right. And let’s not forget that for all his “softness”, Masry is the one who has to make the hard decision to put all his chips on the table when crunch time arrives.
So what do we learn from Erin Brockovich. I can think of at least three lessons. It takes a lot of skills to be a good lawyer. They aren’t all learned in law school. And most lawyers are better at some things than others. On second thought, there is a fourth. It helps to have a good partner.