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Legal Inspiration in Art and Literature

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We’ve all been asked the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? Last year, I attended a preschool graduation where four to five year olds were asked this very question. Their answers varied: a policeman, an ice cream truck driver, a teacher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one mentioned becoming a lawyer or a foreign law specialist. So I polled various staff members of the Law Library and asked, was there a character in art or literature that inspired you to a career as a legal professional? Though I was looking for specific characters, I received some interesting answers to this question. Some people, like Beth Osborne, said they absorbed various legal shows growing up, like Law and Order, but there wasn’t a specific character that inspired them. Similarly, there wasn’t a specific character for Ruth Levush, but rather she “liked the challenge of legal analytical thinking to which I was introduced by learning Talmud (Jewish law) as an academic subject in high school in Israel.” She was also inspired by an American TV show popular at the time, about defense attorneys representing innocent defendants. Regardless of how each of my colleagues entered into the field of law, I’m glad they’re all here.

The courtroom of the Effingham County Courthouse.
Effingham County Court House. Photo by Flickr user Stephen Rahn, July 3, 2012.

Anna Price: When Kelly asked me about an inspirational law-related character from literature or film, many names came to mind, like Rudy Baylor, Mona Lisa Vito, and Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway. But the clear frontrunner for me is Elle Woods from the 2001 film Legally Blonde. After being dumped by her college boyfriend, Elle hatches a plan to win him back by following him to Harvard Law School. When she gets to Harvard, she faces a culture shock; no one takes her seriously and she can’t make friends with her classmates, which leads to serious feelings of self-doubt. I like Elle because she prevails after working hard, trusting her instincts, being kind to others, and playing to her strengths. She finds success once she stops trying to fit into the Harvard mold of neutral colors and steps into the courtroom in a bright pink dress, befitting her personality. Also, anyone who has seen the movie likely remembers the entertaining cross-examination where she schools the witness, jury, and judge on the finer points of perm maintenance and ammonium thioglycolate. At the end of the day, many of us can relate to feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome. Elle shows us that we can manage these feelings by being genuine.

Margaret Wood: When I looked at this question, I realized that it is actually rather surprising that I ended up in the legal profession because one of the most vivid memories I have is my revulsion for the legal profession as was depicted in the novel, Bleak House (1853). The novel is considered by many to be a masterpiece. However, the subject matter was probably not ideal reading for my junior year high school English class. I recall plowing through the last 400 pages of the book one winter afternoon and felt quite jaundiced by end of the book. The novel is structured around the mythical and endless case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which revolves around the settlement of an estate. During the course of the book, the case literally consumes the life of one of the novel’s young characters, Richard Carstone. Another major theme of the novel involves the issue of illegitimacy. One of the novel’s main characters is Esther Summerson, the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock who was given up at birth and believed to be dead. During the course of the novel, Lady Dedlock and Esther meet and Lady Dedlock’s previous history comes out. Although her husband forgives her, in the way of Victorian novels, she must suffer and dies at the grave of her former lover. Esther meanwhile has been disfigured by smallpox but is, in the end, allowed a happy marriage while others variously suffer or are rewarded as appropriate according to Victorian morality. But despite my strong feelings against the depiction of the legal profession in this book, I nonetheless find myself a happy legal reference librarian – perhaps the knowledge that I can help others find the resources they need so they never stumble into the morass of Jarndyce is what sustains me!

Ann Hemmens: The characters that I studied in college that most likely led me to choose the study of law were not found in art or literature, but in the work of psychologist Lenore Walker in The Battered Woman Syndrome (1984) and her research into the cycle of domestic violence and its impact on the individual, the family, and society. Following an internship at a local domestic violence shelter and my work with clients navigating the physical, emotional, and legal challenges of their situations, I decided to pursue law. And, over time, I realized there are many ways to be of service in the law, whether through direct representation, advocacy, scholarship, or connecting people with the information they need.

Jennifer Gonzalez: In high school, my favorite book was A Tale of Two Cities (1859). I had a wonderful literature teacher that brought the book alive and helped me fall in love with Dickens’ writing style. Sydney Carton was my favorite character, a lawyer who doesn’t start off in a great place, but his brilliance, change, and growth throughout the novel interested me and was my first impression of lawyers. While I don’t aspire to his career or to ever see a working guillotine, I do appreciate his sense of morality, evolution, and ultimate hopefulness in humanity.

Nicolas Boring: One of my inspirations for becoming a lawyer was the main protagonist from the 1957 movie Twelve Angry Men, played by Henri Fonda. Although Fonda’s character in that movie is a juror, not a lawyer, I thought he exemplified advocacy in the service of justice, which I thought was inspiring.

Robert Brammer: Dan Fielding from Night Court. I am joking, but John Larroquette’s portrayal of an ethically challenged attorney is the most memorable depiction of an attorney that I remember from my childhood.

If you’re looking for more film depictions of legal proceedings, check out the following posts we’ve done on movies and the law:

Murder, Movies and the Law

Celebrating Valentine’s Day: Law, Love, and Life in the Movies

Friday the 13th Movies and the Law

Movies and Court Martials

Christmas Movies and the Law

The Police and the Paranormal in England

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Comments (2)

  1. Atticus Finch! To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book about lawyers I remember reading as a child. I came to the law as a tool to change the world.

  2. Anna,

    [Warner: “You got into Harvard Law?”] “What, like it’s hard?” —Elle Woods

    “Remember that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.” —Elle Woods

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