Quick – name three movies where lawyers are portrayed as competent and ethical professionals. Easy, you’ll say – The Young Philadelphians, Anatomy of a Murder, The Lincoln Lawyer, Judgment at Nuremburg, A Civil Action, Spotlight, even My Cousin Vinny. Give you more time and you could think of hundreds. Admittedly, there are plenty of movies where male lawyers are portrayed far less admirably or successfully, but the field of examples is vast, and probably mirrors, in one way or another, the field of actual lawyers.
Now, for fun – name three movies where female lawyers are portrayed as competent and ethical professionals. Not so easy, right? There are a handful – notably, Adam’s Rib, Music Box, and The Accused. But that might be the end of the list. Erin Brockovich (in the movie of the same name) is plucky and smart, but not a lawyer. Also, I’ve never met Ms. Brockovich, but did the audience’s appreciation of her legal acumen depend on her cleavage, or was that just a pleasant side benefit? Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) is sassy and insightful (and also a fashionable dresser and adorable), but not a lawyer. (She does go to Harvard Law School, but as she says, it’s not like it’s hard). So the landscape in American movies of competent, ethical, and not so-boring-you-would-rather-do-actual-legal-work-than-watch-them-in-a-movie women lawyers is thin.
Maybe we should not care so much. Anyone who goes to movies for accurate portrayals of people in any profession will probably come away with a strange view of what it would mean to do that job. (Remember when David Letterman had a welder review the quality of the welding work in Flashdance?) That said, I long for a few more movies where the women lawyers do not fall squarely into the common trifecta of evil, slutty, or dumb. Honestly, evil and slutty do not even seem so terrible compared to rank incompetence. See, for example, Demi Moore’s character in A Few Good Men, Tilda Swinton’s in Michael Clayton or Ellen Barkin’s in The Big Easy (and no, that is not her character’s name). In each of these films, the female lawyer makes a giant ethical or tactical mistake and she is chagrined, punished, and (sometimes) rescued. Lawyers make mistakes, of course, but in these movies, the mistakes are almost unbelievably juvenile, and create the perception that, unsupervised, female lawyers may sabotage important matters of strategy or jurisprudence. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of movies where the female lawyer is bungling or boy-crazy, and this leaves us with the unsettling idea that women lawyers are, in many cases, out of their league.
The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession recently published its annual report A Current Glance at Women in the Law (May 2016). It reports that of lawyers in the U.S., 64% are men and 36% are women. In 2000, roughly 30% were women, so the trend is improving. However, at both times, about half of law school graduates were women. Women are going to law school at the same rate, paying the same tuition, doing the same work, and coming out with the same degree as men, and then dropping out of the profession much more frequently than men. The reasons for this are numerous and beyond the scope of this article. And certainly, women are not leaving the profession because portrayals of them in popular media are unflattering.
There is a relationship between these facts, though. As in other arenas, we frequently misunderstand what is not familiar to us. If portrayals of competent women lawyers are not familiar to us, we might assume such people do not exist, or that they are rare. Nothing could be further from the truth. Among those 36% of American lawyers who happen to be women, there are many who are competent, articulate, clever, funny, courageous, and effective. They are not necessarily gorgeous, or fashionable, or rich, or single. They are professionals who have interesting clients, take risks, and hold their own in court rooms and board rooms without being rescued. It would be amazing to see some of them on a big screen.