The Lincoln Lawyer

I saw the movie "The Lincoln Lawyer" with Matthew McConaughey for the second time last night after really enjoying the book.  I had very high expectations for the movie and anticipated a letdown, as most movies based on novels are usually deficient in some way (compared to the novel). The book was so enjoyable to me I think in part because of the accuracy with which it portrayed the life of a criminal defense attorney.  Throughout the novel I was convinced the author must have practiced criminal defense at some point in his career.  I read later that a couple of Los Angeles criminal defense attorneys helped him write portions of the book, and he even tailed them on the job to develop a deeper understanding of their mindset with work.

Without giving away any of the plot to the movie, one topic in particular addressed in both the book and the movie caught my attention.  When first reading the book, I tabbed and reread many portions because I believed it had so much applicability to profession.  At one point, the attorney discusses with his investigator how an innocent man is the hardest to defend.

"The scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client...because if you mess up and the client goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life.  There is no go-between with an innocent client, no negotiation, no plea bargaining, no middle ground.  You have to put a "Not Guilty" on the scoreboard.  There’s no other verdict but Not Guilty."

When I first read this I remember immediately underlining this excerpt because I felt it held so much meaning.  I read it maybe ten different times trying to analyze what to make of it.  I think I read it so many times, and contemplated the meaning behind it for so long, because I knew deep down that it was correct.

I take a lot of pride in my work.  I try to work as hard as I can for the clients I represent.  I work hard, and expend as much energy as I possibly can, because I believe in the right to a vigorous defense.  Perhaps I am naive, but I approach each case as if my client is innocent.  A colleague of mine a couple of months ago told me how they had a problem believing each of their clients was "Guilty", no matter what they said on their own behalf.  I was astounded.  This attorney conveyed to me that they always assumed clients "Guilty" from the beginning.  I remember being shocked.

I remember commenting back what I once read a very well-respected attorney in Austin said in response to a question from a news reporter when asked during an interview what his perspective was on handling cases.  I remember him saying how he never thought about "Guilt" or "Innocence", or even what the "Truth" was.  When defending someone accused of a crime, "Guilt" or "Innocence" really didn’t matter.  He said all that really mattered to him was “what the state could Prove.”  He said he simply evaluated the evidence, and his decision-making with counsel and advice revolved merely around what he thought the state could prove if the case proceeded to trial.

I remember reading another portion of the book and immediately notating the words because they held so held so much meaning for me.  The attorney, Mickey Haller, thinks to himself:

"There was nothing about the law I cherished anymore.  The law school notions about the virtue of the adversarial system, of the system of checks and balances, of the search for the Truth, had lone since eroded like the faces of statues from other civilizations.  The law was not about truth.  It was about negotiation, amelioration, manipulation.  I didn’t deal in 'Guilty' or 'Innocence', because of everybody was 'Guilty' of something.  But it didn’t matter, because every case I took was a house built on a foundation poured by overworked and underpaid laborers.  They cut corners.  They made mistakes.  And then they painted over the mistakes with lies.  My job was to peel away the paint and find the cracks.  To work my fingers and tools into those cracks and widen them.  To make them so big that either the house fell down, or failing that, my client slipped through."

I read this portion of the novel and I thought about what the attorney in Austin told the news reporter in the article I read: the"Truth" didn’t matter, nor did "Guilt" or "Innocence."  The only thing that mattered was what the state could "Prove."  I remember thinking that the attorney in Austin might as well have given the author this perspective on how to approach a criminal case.

Perhaps the only thing I disagreed with the author of "The Lincoln Lawyer" on were his comments regarding how there was nothing in the law that he cherished anymore.  Honestly, when I read this it made me sad and afraid.  It made me sad because I had a very good feeling that these were the words of a very seasoned criminal defense attorney.  At the time I didn’t know that most of the thoughts from the attorney in the story came from real criminal defense attorneys in Los Angeles.  The comments made me afraid and fearful that in time I would also feel this way.  I underlined, notated, and tabbed this section, and I have thought about what this means probably everyday since.

Contrary to the attorney in "The Lincoln Lawyer", there is still plenty I cherish about the law.  I love the virtue of our adversarial system, and I firmly believe in the right of the accused to challenge any charge brought by the government. I feel honored and privileged when I represent someone who entrusts me with that sacred right.  I take that privilege very seriously.  I have an absolute belief that the accused deserves the most vigorous defense possible, and I firmly believe my job is to act as a conduit to preserve that precious right.

Perhaps I am naive, but I believe the accused should always have an attorney who believes in them.  I truly do not think an attorney should be practicing criminal defense if their natural mindset is to presume "Guilt," rather than "Innocence", at the start of the case.

Maybe I am mistaken in this belief, and perhaps in time my perspective will become jaded.  Another colleague of mine (and a close friend) worked for Racehorse Haynes when he first starting practicing law (not the same colleague from the conversation above).  I remember him telling me how Racehorse at the end of his career conveyed to him that he had seen the law change in his time.  He told me that Racehorse felt the law changed in a negative way, alluding to the fact how he believed the concepts of fairness and equity had blurred.  In the book, the attorney in the story had a famous criminal defense attorney father, who would have been about the same age in the timeline of the story as the great Racehorse Haynes.  The author states how at the end of his life, his father left memoirs that reflected his belief in the law:

"The law was different now.  It was grayer.  Ideals had long been downgraded to notions.  Notions were optional."

Again, when I read this I felt as though I might have been reading the thoughts and words of perhaps the greatest criminal defense attorney of all-time, Racehorse Haynes.  Just as when I heard the words of Haynes from my friend, reading this passage made me sad.  I am sad to think that our current criminal justice system has changed in such a way where this actually may be true.  How "ideals have been downgraded to notions.  And notions are now optional."

That being said, these thoughts only enhance my belief that I will approach every case from the beginning as if my client is "Innocent."  And that it is my duty to believe and defend each client as if they are "Innocent."  Perhaps some of the words from above are right...that "Truth" does not matter.  At times, I have found that very much to be the case.  But what I also know is that I believe every client in our criminal justice system should be afforded an attorney who will not assume (or presume) "Guilt."  That’s not our job.  While much of the law may be grayer now, as the author states, this area in particular is one where I deeply feel it's still very much black and white.