When it comes to the fictional lawyers who entertain, inspire, surprise or shock Australian legal professionals, it’s a mix that spans decades and nationalities.
“You’re going to hear ‘Atticus Finch’ a lot”, LSJ was warned by some, but in fact Mike and Harvey from Suits were referenced several times, and Finch? Once only.
While iconic fictional lawyers Atticus Finch, Gomez Addams, Perry Mason and Ally McBeal have not been the catalyst to enter the profession for the lawyers we spoke with, they are some of the lawyers in books, film, theatre and television who have provided examples of, if not inspired, careers in law.
Carol Younes is an Accredited Specialist in Criminal Law and a founding partner at Hugo Law Group. Her fictional lawyers of choice are Atticus Finch, the beloved father and attorney depicted in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and Martin Vail, the Chicago defence attorney who featured in William Diehl’s series of novels between 1993 and 1998, and in the 1996 movie Primal Fear. Richard Gere played Vail, who is conflicted in his belief that his client – a teenage altar boy from Kentucky played by Edward Norton – is innocent of murdering a Catholic archbishop. As the case progresses, Vail’s client switches personalities, transforming from a stuttering, benign Aaron to becoming a violent and enraged sociopath named Roy. The case becomes focused on questions about mental illness and the complexities of intergenerational sexual assault. Naturally, it provides plenty of questions and conundrums for a criminal lawyer to ponder years after first discovering Vail through the books or the movie.
“Norton’s performance was spectacular, and I’ve found myself recommending the movie and revisiting it since I first watched it in my late teens,” Younes says. “I was intrigued and unsettled by the moral complexity of the task faced by Martin Vail. His desire to act on a pro bono basis for the accused shows that this job is, at its best, a calling. The way in which the plot then developed impressed upon me the importance of avoiding the trap of certainty when dealing in human affairs. The criminal law, it appeared to me, would present challenges such as those faced by Mr Vail on an all too regular basis – situations that are messy and sometimes unclear, but ultimately of enormous importance to the proper functioning of our society. And so I have found it to be.”
‘The way in which the plot developed impressed upon me the importance of avoiding the trap of certainty when dealing in human affairs.’
Family lawyer Hayder Shkara, a Principal at Justice Family Lawyers, nominates comedic lawyers as his fictional indulgences of choice. “It would be hard to go past the Mike and Harvey combination of Suits,” he says.
“But I also love Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld. Growing up, I was a huge Seinfeld fan and all of the scenes with Jackie Chiles were always my favourite,” admits Shkara. “How can you forget the smooth, fast talking and charismatic attitude he had, handling all areas of law ranging from suing tobacco companies to murder trials?”
A far cry from hard-bitten Vail, Chiles appeared in the seventh season to ninth seasons of the popular Seinfeld series. Chiles is reputedly a painfully verbose caricature of real-life attorney Johnnie Cochran. Despite being hilarious, he has little luck winning his cases. With his thick, Seventies funk-rock-band moustache, tinted sunglasses and slick suits, he’s eminently fashionable. And if he’s going to continually fail to acquit his clients, at least he does so while being eminently stylish, Shkara notes.
“Who can forget his line in the last ever Seinfeld episode when the issue of the Good Samaritan law was brought to light, also known as the ‘Duty to Rescue law’?” he asks.
“This was based on a real law in the USA, [where] you had a positive obligation to assist those who were in need. Failing to do so would result in a crime being committed. Upon hearing this, Chiles replied: ‘You don’t have to help anybody. That’s what this country’s all about.’ Brilliant.”
Relatable for real lawyers
American dramas that straddle both comedy and drama are a commonality for Shkara and Gia Cari, Partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler. For entertainment, both indulge in Suits. The show, beginning in 2011, famously introduced Meghan Markle as attorney Rachel, who falls for Mike Ross, a would-be attorney who has faked his qualifications and credentials and yet manages to charm his way into a well-reputed law firm. Gina Torres as the practical, senior partner Jessica Pearson rules the roost, Louis Litt (Richard Edward Hoffmann) provides plenty of entertainment through his bumbling, manipulative exploits in and outside the court and Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) is suave and ruthlessly slick. The characters trip each other up, fall in love, fall out of love, get too close to their clients or struggle to empathise with them at all. Both Cari and Shkara believe that, as hilariously exaggerated as many of the scenarios are, the humanity and complexities of bringing personal dramas into the workplace are relatable for real lawyers.
Michael Bradley, Managing Partner at Marque Lawyers, names Vinny Gambino as his fictional favourite. Given Bradley’s knack for clever and searing Twitter posts, it’s perhaps no surprise that the protagonist of 1992 movie My Cousin Vinny tops his list. Vinny (Vincent LaGuardia Gambini) travels to court in New York six weeks after passing his bar exam to defend his cousin and a friend on murder charges. Along for the ride is his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito, played by Marisa Tomei. Gambini, whose opening address begins, “Everything that guy just said is bulls**t”, is the prime example of a livewire lawyer with little regard for courtroom protocol. Bradley explains the appeal of Gambini.
“Despite having no idea what he was doing, having to appear in court in a velvet dinner suit and being constantly bullied by a racist judge, he just kept facing up and fighting; and, most importantly, he recognised that Vito had a superior character arc and just got out of her way, allowing her to win the case and secure the acquittal of Billy Gambini (Ralph Macchio). Humility and self-awareness are rare qualities in a lawyer.”
As for any similarities between Gambini and himself, Bradley quips, “I like wearing a suit as much as he did.”
Annie Crowe is a Neurodiversity and Invisible Disability Consultant. She is an autistic lawyer with a considered take on how autistic characters are portrayed on screen.
“There have been many fictional autistic characters, but most people wouldn’t know they were autistic, as the societal understanding of autism is based on a pathologising medical model of disability that only recognises autistic people in crisis through an inherently biased and discriminatory lens,” she explains.
“As far as I know, as an avid legal drama viewer, there has not been any Australian drama that realistically presents an autistic lawyer. I hope that this changes. Maybe I need to write a script!”
A new series from Korea, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, is based on a 27-year-old autistic female lawyer, Woo Young Woo. Crowe welcomes this series, believing it is imperative to have fictional autistic lawyers in mainstream media, “especially a female autistic lawyer, as neurodivergent females are so rarely represented, at least not with a clear diagnosis or autistic identity.”
Many autistic people are natural born advocates and social justice warriors, Crowe says. “We are systematic thinkers who can creatively think outside the box and often enjoy problem solving. The legal profession is an ideal place for many of us, at least if we can fix some of the pervasive accessibility and inclusion issues within legal practice.”
The show is not without its faults and has many damaging themes and language, Crowe says.
Only the beginning of representation
“Firstly, the savant nature of Attorney Woo, with her photographic memory, is a stale and problematic stereotype. Much of the show, as with many similar portrayals of savant-like fictional autistic characters, highlights her autistic traits as tolerable because of the giftedness; it makes her worth the burden which she is clearly seen to be on most of the characters. The majority of autistic people, like non-autistic or allistic people, do not have savant-like skills. How much of a ‘burden’ should we tolerate from autistic lawyers that don’t outsmart all the non-autistic lawyers? It’s a ridiculous question. The neurodiversity paradigm is the concept that all neurotypes hold inherent value and worth. Also, the language used in the series is very outdated and even harmful. Attorney Woo is not a lawyer ‘with autism’ or ‘with ASD’, she is an ‘autistic lawyer’. Most autistic adults choose this language to reclaim their autistic identity and pride. We don’t have autism, I can’t separate myself from the autism like it’s an accessory, it’s a part of me and is always a part of me, at work, in school, at the doctors. To separate it like it is a disease or burden to carry is offensive to many autistic adults and our autistic identity and culture.”
Crowe concludes that, ultimately, “Extraordinary Attorney Woo is heart-warming and highlights examples of the very real ableism and discrimination autistic lawyers face, but it’s only the beginning of neurodivergent representation, which is needed to help understand and truly value the diversity that autistic lawyers bring to the legal profession and society.”
These fictional lawyers provide much needed food for thought, and – in the case of Chiles and Gambino – some welcome belly laughs.
The final word goes to Fay Calderone, who is inspired by an Australian character. Calderone is both a Partner and an Employment Lawyer at Hall & Wilcox. As Chair of the Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing Council there, and as an Executive Committee Member of Women Lawyers Association of NSW, it is perhaps not surprising that she has chosen two Australian Crown Prosecutors, played by the same woman, who for her are the epitome of integrity and intelligence.
“Marta Dusseldorp as Janet King is my all-time favourite and she is bringing it again in The Twelve [as Crown Prosecutor Lucy Bloom]. Although I am not a barrister, she does such a brilliant depiction of the strength, conviction, compassion and behind-the-scenes vulnerability of women in law. She is the type of barrister I would brief every day of the week and twice on Sundays.”
Janet King first aired in 2014, a spin-off series from the original Crownies on ABC. Senior Crown Prosecutor Janet King faces various ethical conundrums while also battling personal dramas. Her sexuality, her role as a parent, and her romantic relationships are used as ammunition against her by those who are under her investigation. King was the creation of producers Hilary Bonney, a barrister, and Jane Allen, a criminal lawyer and writer. The series drew its storylines from national headlines, not least the illegal trade in firearms, assisted suicide, and gang killings. Dusseldorp’s research included speaking with Nicholas Cowdery, then the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, and shadowing former Senior Crown Prosecutor Margaret Cunneen SC.
In Calderone’s view, Dusseldorp is “remarkably proficient as Janet King”, while also allowing viewers to relate to her as a person with responsibilities beyond her profession.
The same can be said of Gambino, Chiles, Vail, Goodman and Harvey Specter. While they may not (thankfully) directly inspire lawyers, they provide much needed food for thought, and – in the case of Chiles and Gambino – some welcome belly laughs.