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Everything I know about the Legal System, I learned from the Movies

September 21st, 2013 · No Comments

Think for a moment about the influence of popular culture informing your opinions about the legal system.  Whether a consumer of film, television, radio, music or literature, you have likely been exposed to broad, thematic messages about law and justice.

These messages may be inspirational and enlightening, or distorted and inaccurate representations of our legal system.  Legal professionals may be vilified or sainted, redeemed or doomed, but their portrayals often linger long after we leave the theater.  Who can forget Jack Nicholson bellowing at Tom Cruise in  Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” or  Al Pacino verbally going off the rails in  And Justice For All: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”   We love those climactic scenes; we assume that the such rants are routine, and that courtroom drama is a daily occurrence.  Until we attend an actual trial!

In movies, it is difficult to capture the realities of the legal system, particularly with the limitations of a 90-minute film.  The details, structure, and complexities of the process are not exactly riveting cinematic fare.  Most films about litigation and the delivery of justice minimize the tedious aspects of trial preparation and procedure, substituting instead sensationalized trials with unexpected plot twists and unforgettable “gotcha” moments.  That makes for good theater, but not good civic education.  Lawyers have begun to realize that much of what the public believes about our system of justice is derived from motion pictures;  expectations need to be adjusted, or more lawyers need to attend film school.

Despite these indictments of Hollywood, I cannot pan all legally-themed movies.  My moral compass has been set by several epic  films about the pursuit of justice.  Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me to become a lawyer (along with countless others, I’m sure).  When I applied to law school, I was advised to watch The Paper Chase, a movie about a first-year Harvard law student intimidated by a stern professor and the Socratic method of teaching.  It was instructive, and eerily similar to my first-year property class experience.

Full disclosure-movies have significantly influenced my notions of justice and the law (as well as my original career path).   I’d like to share with you my list of favorite legal films, along with the American Bar Association Journal’s   “25 Greatest Legal Movies” (ABA Journal, posted 8/1/2008 by Richard Brust).  I expect comments if any of your favorites are missing!


My favorite legal movie list (no particular order):

To Kill a Mockingbird, Presumed Innocent, Primal Fear, Michael Clayton, Class Action, Philadelphia, Fracture,  A Few Good Men, Defending Your Life, The Verdict, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Breaker Morant, 12 Angry Men, And Justice for All, Inherit the Wind, Kramer vs. Kramer, Liar, Liar, My Cousin Vinny, Jagged Edge, and  all the Grisham adaptions: A Time to Kill,  The Chamber, The Client, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury

The ABA List (ranked by the best first)

To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, My Cousin Vinny, Anatomy of a Murder, Inherit the Wind, Witness for the Prosecution, Breaker Morant, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich, The Verdict, Presumed Innocent, Judgement at Nuremberg, A Man for All Seasons, A Few Good Men, Chicago, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Paper Chase, Reversal of Fortune, Compulsion, And Justice for All, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Young Mr. Lincoln, Amistad, and Miracle on 34th Street


Consider replaying some of these legal classics on your favorite media device.  Prepare to be inspired, transported  and possibly duped!  But when you need reliable, accurate information about the legal system in your area,  search  Select the Self Help and Legal Research or Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral categories for your particular state and county to find links to legal information, legal service providers, and frequently asked questions and answers about the legal process.









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Gun Court

August 29th, 2013 · No Comments

Guns are in the news lately. The USA is a big country with a lot of guns, some of which are used to kill large numbers of people, generating news reports. Some are used in confrontations that become high-profile trials, generating more news reports.

From Newtown CT to Sanford FL, the headlines have driven debate about guns and gun violence. The debate in turn drives more headlines about guns – so guns are in the news. But in the USA, guns are always in the news. Although the Sandy Hook school shooting and the George Zimmerman trial make headlines, guns are used to commit crimes every day. Unless they’re murders, they are not the leadoff story on the evening news; they’re below the fold or buried deep in the daily paper.  But they are there.

Debate about guns in the USA includes competing solutions, from “no guns!” to “more guns!” with many shades in between. Those arguments are beyond the scope of the court system – and of this blog. The court and criminal justice systems don’t set policy about guns or anything else. But they do deal with the consequences of gun violence.

Although courts can’t make policy based on the news or current public debate and opinion, they can implement procedures to better deal with current trends. When certain types of cases become common, the criminal justice system pays attention to them. The result can be new approaches to those types of cases, some of which don’t follow the typical “crime -> punishment” model.

This blog has noted several different kinds of courts that address specific types of crimes. These courts are not really separate courts; they’re separate divisions or departments of existing courts, with unique procedures matched to these specific cases. They are called “problem-solving courts” or “accountability courts” and they include Drug Courts, Family Dependency Treatment Courts, Mental Health Courts, and Veterans Courts. A common theme of these specialty courts is the recognition that drugs or alcohol or mental illness can be treated, and that such treatment may be more effective than incarceration in preventing future offenses. Another common theme is the active involvement of the judge in prescribing and monitoring the treatment, alongside the probation officers, counselors, educators, and other professionals involved in the program

Gun Courts are a newer type of problem-solving court, and they take a different approach. While drugs or alcohol can lead to crime, guns make the crime worse. While other types of problem-solving courts usually substitute treatment for incarceration, gun courts usually include incarceration, and may or may not include educational or counseling components. The difference is primarily between adult and juvenile gun courts. Adult gun courts mean quick trials (to get offenders off the streets as soon as possible) and severe sentences (to make it clear that use of guns to commit crimes carries serious consequences). Juvenile gun courts more closely resemble other types of problem-solving courts, because they use education and counseling in addition to punishment.

A good example of a juvenile gun court is found in Jefferson County, Alabama. Like other problem-solving courts, it’s a collaboration between the court, law enforcement, schools, counselors, probation, and the Department of Youth Services. Unlike other types of problem-solving courts – but in line with other gun courts – it always includes a form of incarceration. For less serious offenses, it’s called “boot camp” but it lasts 30 days. While the juvenile is required to attend boot camp and other classes about the dangers and consequences of guns, the parents are also required to attend classes.

Other gun courts may be found in Providence, RI (the first such court, created in 1994), Boston, MA, and Brooklyn, NY, and Detroit MI. Look for links to these and other types of problem-solving courts on CourtReference.

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Finding the Right Attorney, Part 2 – How to be a Savvy Legal Consumer With Online Resources

August 19th, 2013 · No Comments

Last month’s blog article “How do you find the right attorney for your legal issue, your area, and your budget” (July 18, 2013) promoted the idea of using lawyer referral services offered by state and local Bar Associations. The ubiquity of the programs (more than 300 nationally) and the mission of matching legal consumers with unbiased, qualified referrals based upon specific legal needs is endorsed and governed by the American Bar Association. The referral services include pre-screening assistance, detailed educational and professional profiles, and assisted selection of appropriate counsel.
Whether you utilize a referral program or decide to find an attorney yourself, how do you navigate through the sea of online ads, legal directories and peer review sites to make your selection? There are multiple sources to confirm the background of a recommended attorney, or seek feedback about a prospective one.
Let’s look at the type of online resources available, starting with legal directories. There are nearly as many directory websites as lawyers, it seems! The most popular sites based upon recent ranking are,,,,, and These sites provide virtual snapshots of a lawyer’s background and experience, and can draw from a variety of sources, including academic, bar association, employer, peer, and client data, as well as news and public records information.
It is not the intention of this article to endorse a particular directory, but to advise the legal consumer that there are differences in the type of data and collection processes offered. Compare these and other sites for profile content, rating system (if available), peer and/or client feedback, member or consumer fees, and other criteria important to you (i.e., ease-of-use, geographic coverage).
Regarding profile content, some directories include all licensed attorneys, while others include only selected, nominated, or paying members. and provide professional rating systems, but their ratings are based upon different factors (years of practice, professional achievements, community recognition, disciplinary history, etc.). They also weight these factors differently; it is important to conduct your own “due diligence” by reviewing how these sites collect, compile, and rank their data.
Peer endorsements provided in legal directories can be compelling if supported by other professional accomplishments, particularly if they represent a diverse sampling of the legal community. Again, consult the website to determine how these endorsements are solicited and selected for inclusion, and what weight they carry (and if there is a limit to the number of peer recommendations displayed).
Similarly, client feedback can be very valuable. How balanced are the reviews in terms of positive and negative representation? Do the reviews appear “cherry-picked” or heavily edited? Does the feedback appear in the profile, or does it stand alone on the site? If the website reveals its editorial process for client reviews, and the site includes a rating system, do those reviews impact the allover score of the lawyer?
For fee-based legal directories, who pays? Many websites offer client “lead generation” services in exchange for a fee paid by member attorneys. There are hierarchies of listings as well on some sites; different rates apply for “priority” placement to attract prospective legal clients. Do not assume a more robust or prominent profile was randomly placed!  It was likely paid for. There are, however, some sites that offer free listings of all licensed attorneys in a particular state or region.
In addition to directories, be sure to consult attorney and firm websites and blogs. Don’t discount a sole practitioner or small firm because their websites are not dazzling; content is more important than optics. There are many publications (hardcopy as well as online) that can be instructive; sources like Super Lawyers (which possesses a patented lawyer selection process!), state and national Law Journals, Bar Association monthlies, etc., all rank attorneys, typically by practice area, on an annual basis. Area news providers, including papers, city magazines, business, industry and topical journals frequently profile local legal talent.
And, back to my beloved state Bar Associations! Your local Bar Association can confirm an attorney’s eligibility to practice in that jurisdiction, educational background (including advanced legal degrees), and any disciplinary history, pending sanctions and/or suspensions. You can also request the names of members of the Bar’s practice area groups and authors of  its CLE (Continuing Legal Education) publications to find recognized local experts on specific legal topics.
This article barely scratches the surface of utilizing the almost limitless resources available when seeking legal counsel. Surf the web, read the blogs, peruse the ads, study the profiles. There is a wealth of information at your fingertips!
For a list of lawyer referral services in your area to launch an attorney search, go to and choose your state and county. Then select the category “Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral” to review available directories and referral services.

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