Friday, March 4, 2011

A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar...- Dir. Eric Chaikin

About a month ago, I was up around midnight on a Saturday night, searching randomly around documentaries on Netflix. I came across this movie and found it worth writing about on Flying Houses for several reasons. First of all, there are many films and television shows about the legal profession, but they never address the boredom and mundanity of it all. They make it seem exciting. In a review on Flying Houses from about a year and a half ago (here, there contained a quote from Roger Ebert to the effect that nothing could be more boring than an absolutely accurate movie about the law. I am sure that, were I to read The Lawyer Myth again, I would not review it so easily. Or perhaps it would be more illuminating, a quicker read, and less boring at points. Any books published for the general public will be less tedious than the mechanical methodology of a judicial opinion. There are plenty of books about the legal profession, but few films, and owing to people's inability to find time to read, or general laziness, it seems that more should be made in the near future.

There are plenty of feature films, but as already mentioned, they do not expose the mundanity. This film exposes the mundanity, but in a way that still makes law school seem like fun. Or rather, there is little discussion of the actual 3 years. The focus is upon the two and a half months in between graduation--second half of May, June, and July--and the hell that newly-minted J.D.'s must undergo in California. They face a Bar Exam with a 39% pass rate, the lowest in the country. At least, that is the percentage the film cites. The figures I find are 44% or 46% from 2004 or 2005. In 2009, it was 49% (and in 2008 it was an impressive 54%)--also these are "overall" numbers--the first-time numbers are generally a bit higher.

This film follows six different aspiring Bar-passers. I say that because one of them is a social worker by trade who has taken the Bar exam about forty times. Many organizations utilize both social workers and attorneys, so maybe actually he would just change his position where he was working. He has consistently failed the Bar and it inspired him to write an article called "Fuck the Bar," and at one point in the film he shouts it at the building where they are all taking it in Ontario, CA.

The five others graduate from various schools. There is a girl who is part-Native American and who says she was a 50% actress/50% law student while attending UCLA law school, the most prestigious school represented. She has a scholarship or a grant from the Tribe she is affiliated with. In one scene, she should be studying for the Bar, but instead she is out partying, and I am surprised the footage of that remained in the film, though it does make for its most hilarious moment. It seems almost staged.

I think THREE of the six actually went to Loyola Law School, which is why I found this so worth writing about, as I nearly attended that school in a dead-lock (decided about a year ago) with its arguable "sister-school," where I now reside. One of them is a guy who graduated the year before, and he is taking the Bar his second time. The two others are girls who have just graduated that year. I realize now that it is hard to write this review without getting deeply into their personal stories.

The last person went to People's College of Law in L.A. and some of the scenes with the director of the school are some of the best in the movie too. I've forgotten the quotes she has but practically all are classic. The student in question is a Mexican immigrant mother who is in her late 30s or early 40s. Some of the scenes with her are very moving, and her story of going through community college in East L.A. and making her way through law school to become a potential attorney may inspire those in situations where the odds seem improbably stacked against them.

I do not want to give away the ending but let us just say that it is not very surprising.

I do not have much to say about this film except that I am glad it exists. However, it was released in 2007, and shot in the summer of 2006, so there is very little in the film to suggest that the economy is bad, particularly for lawyers. Now there needs to be a new movie. Nothing about law school translates as well in documentary form as the Bar, because it is the actual end of all the b-s. It would not be feasible to make a movie about all 3 years of law school. I do think a good movie could be made about the first year. There are many crucial moments that would translate well. The orientation, the first month of classes, the legal writing assignments piled up on top of the other work, the different briefing methods, note-taking methods, the midterms, if any, and finally the exams---followed by the grades, which are "all that matter," the next semester classes, the internship search, and finally the last exams, which will determine class rank for OCI, hiring for summer associates, and potential hiring for graduates. Of course the end of the first year is far from the end, and so no real closure could be given. Law school is not properly applicable to a documentary context, but should be portrayed in a feature film, with much drama and much mundanity. This would help that percentage of law students that enter with nebulous ideas of what it is going to be like, and where it is going to lead.

1L (also previously reviewed here) and the The Paper Chase may be instructive, but they portray Harvard Law School in the 1970s. While the actual material students must read in the first year may not have changed appreciably, the general atmosphere pervading the profession has, as has society at large. I want to see a movie that shows 1/3 of the students at an "average" school going on Facebook or playing Scrabble on their computers while in class. I want it to focus on like, maybe 6 students, one who is perfect and gets straight A's, blah, blah, blah, another who is far from perfect and gets bad grades and looks like an idiot when they have to talk in class, who worries about ever getting a job and wants to drop out, and the other four in varying degrees in the middle, maybe one person who commits "sectioncest" and has a romantic comedy storyline, maybe one who is super-depressed and breaks out crying in the middle of class or kills themselves, maybe a totally average student who gets through everything alright and ends up with a job, and is generally happy, and then maybe another totally average student who maybe ends up with a job, but maybe has serious financial difficulties, and always wonders if they made the right decision, if there wasn't something else they'd rather be doing.

A feature film like this would lay out all the issues, and actually be useful to those considering applying. A potential student will probably not find A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar.... and decide they don't want to go. No matter how bad people make the Bar seem, I think students will always think, "Well, I did the LSAT and nothing can be more stressful than that..." However, it seems clear to me now, that the Bar is more stressful than anything, after watching this film. If you fail, what do you do? You take it again. Or else you keep your J.D. on your resume, and maybe some HR people think you may have other skills, but have questions that you can either answer or not, at the risk of looking like a liability. Really, at the end of the day, nothing is more stressful than getting the job, and actually living under the terms of the profession. Once that is achieved, there should be happiness, because all of the hoops and hurdles have been jumped through and over. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, happiness does not generally follow. Rather, lawyers tend to look back fondly on their law school years. It seems as if many are guarded individuals who would rather not open up about their personal feelings on the subject, but will be happy to tell people not to go if they aren't absolutely sure they want to go.

The financial aspect of taking BarBri and the Bar, after the enormous financial burdens of law school is vaguely addressed in this film, but I still think my feature film idea would get this across better. Now, movies extolling Christian ideology by Christian filmmakers always find financing despite not expecting to reach a critical mass, but who will finance my movie? The ABA? The NYC Bar Association? A profession is hardly a religion. But in a profession so deeply concerned with regulation, one would think there would be a way to regulate law schools in a manner that a disproportionate number of students do not graduate with little hope of employment. Unfortunately, such a massive overhaul is unlikely to be seriously considered.

P.S. If anyone actually takes my idea without coming to me for use as a creative consultant, it will make me very sad.