Lawyers Deliver Their Verdict on 'The Firm' : Guilty of Overstatement, They Rule

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From Gregory Peck's honorable Atticus Finch in the 1962 classic "To Kill a Mockingbird" to Paul Newman's painfully human portrait in "The Verdict" to Tom Cruise as a tough-talking naval attorney in "A Few Good Men," Hollywood has consistently shown its love for lawyers--even when public opinion swings against them.

Enter Sydney Pollack's new legal thriller, "The Firm." Based on real-life lawyer John Grisham's best-selling novel, the Paramount movie starring Cruise (again) and Gene Hackman has already grossed $44.5 million and knocked "Jurassic Park" out of first place for the first time this summer--proving once again that filmmakers aren't the only ones intrigued by life in the law.

But "The Firm's" lawyers rub elbows with the Mafia and launder money in the Caribbean. Is the life of an attorney that exciting--or illicit? The Times asked movie-going lawyers what they thought about "The Firm."

From the most senior corporate attorney to the youngest eager associate, the response was the same: We're no movie stars. Take Eric Joss, who after 17 years in practice, has earned the right to judge the legal profession, which he found exaggerated by "The Firm."

"Ninety percent of what we do is behind the scenes. The legal process by nature is not glamorous," admitted Joss, a partner at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker.

You mean all lawyers don't dodge gun-toting maniacs and jet off to the Cayman Islands on a weekly basis? What about the three-martini lunches? Standoffs with the government? The beautiful women ?

"I don't know anybody that leads the lifestyle that they led," said Wayne Allen, a tax attorney with Walsworth, Franklin and Bevins in Orange. "That's Hollywood, and John Grisham."

"If they made ("The Firm") realistic, it would be people sitting around in a library--and nobody would want to watch it," explained Paul, Hastings associate Jon Meer.

But they didn't, and many of the lawyers in Meer's firm turned out for a private opening-night screening at downtown Los Angeles' Laemmle's Grande theater.

They laughed hysterically--almost familiarly--at the fierce and lucrative bidding war for the talented Harvard-man Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise), and nodded in understanding as the eager young associate worked ferociously through the night, night after night.

And after debating only a few minutes at the end of the movie, they came to the conclusion that even with a cast of bad guys doing bad things, the movie won't make attorneys look any worse to the public.

Other attorneys agreed. "It's yet another in a whole string of films depicting lawyers as an acquisitive group driven by greed and entirely bereft of moral fiber," quipped David Graber, an attorney with the Beverly Hills firm Rosenfeld, Meyer and Susman. "But this is entertainment, this is fiction."

"It's a good thriller, with a great complex plot," added Wendy Herzog, a divorce lawyer with the Los Angeles firm Deutsch and Rubin. "That it happens to deal with lawyers is a premise. I don't think it's going to change anybody's opinions."

That said, where else did Cruise and company go right--or wrong--with "The Firm"? Just ask the lawyers:

* Big Bucks and Bonuses: The on-screen seduction of Mitch McDeere in "The Firm" is enough to lure anyone to law school. But could a real-life McDeere really pull down the deal offered by a little-known firm in Memphis?

Most of the attorneys said that while first-year salaries are often lucrative--mostly to help defray the high costs of law-school loans--McDeere's offer, which included a low-interest loan and a new luxury car, was too good to be true.

"There's no first-year associate around that is worth $90,000," according to Sheldon Fleming of the Orange firm Walsworth, Franklin and Bevins.

"There's no Mercedes in my driveway," an associate at Paul, Hastings joked.

* The Bar Exam: The images of McDeere being bombarded with casework and lessons for the notorious bar exam are some of the movie's funniest. But as those who have tackled the test and passed tell it, they rarely do both.

"When you are in bar preparation mode, you can't function on any other level. You get on autopilot," Herzog said with a laugh.

"And you certainly don't go to the Cayman Islands while you're studying for the bar--at least if you plan on passing," said first-year attorney John Spirtos with the Santa Barbara firm Mullen and Henzell.

* Bending the Law: One of the most probing questions raised by "The Firm" is whether law firms like Bendini, Lambert and Locke really exist. With a chokehold on its lawyers rivaling Big Brother's in George Orwell's "1984," The Firm, as it is always referred to, seems larger than life.

Michelle Reinglass, president of the Orange County Bar Assn. with a practice in Laguna Hills, found "The Firm's" premise amusing. "You don't normally have firms killing off their lawyers. I don't know of many firms that have Mafia security."

Yet most of the lawyers acknowledged that certain practices, such as overbilling clients--a practice that figures heavily into the resolution of the plot of "The Firm"--are not just a thing of the movies.

Ken Christmas, a second-year lawyer with the Los Angeles office of O'Melveny and Myers, has heard horror stories about overbilling, including tales of attorneys billing clients for time spent in the bathroom. His favorite?

"The funniest story I ever heard was from a New York lawyer flying to California who double-billed his client for the time change. He billed 27 hours in a 24-hour period."

Indeed, the challenge issued to McDeere by his mentor Avery Tolar (Hackman) to bend the law "as far as possible without breaking it" sends viewers a dangerous message about lawyers, according to Laurie Levenson, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount School of Law:

"The message of 'The Firm' seemed to be a bit bizarre: that lawyers have a code of ethics, but that it is designed to protect the lawyers and the crooks."

But for Barry Tarlow, an L.A. attorney known for his successful white-collar criminal defense record, there is a vast difference between defending people like the movie's Morolto family and becoming co-conspirators with them.

"I represent people that are involved in organized crime," said Tarlow, "but representing people doesn't mean you do something illegal for them. It doesn't mean you have anything to do with their personal affairs."

* Happy Endings: "The Firm's" dramatic conclusion, heightened by a personal transformation in Cruise's McDeere, was of particular interest to the lawyers asked to put themselves in the young man's shoes.

"He really had no other choice," said Stephan DeSales, a criminal attorney from Fullerton.

Even so, McDeere's decision should not be heralded as a heroic one, according to Loyola's Levenson: "You don't walk away thinking of him as any great hero. He found a convenient solution, and let the bad crooks get away."

Convenience notwithstanding, many lawyers could not help rooting for McDeere, especially after watching him narrowly escape the path so often traveled by their legal counterparts.

"I've seen a lot of classmates fall into that trap. They end up working six or seven days a week, for four or five years straight. They get divorced, they have family problems, and they wake up with money in the bank but no social life," Fleming said.

"And then they realize that money is not everything, and they turn around and go back to why they became a lawyer in the first place."

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