YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Lawyers' tricks can be treats

By Kathryn E. Brown | Oct 22, 2008

As Halloween approaches, cable networks proudly present horror films for audiences that love guts and gore.

From one channel to another, viewers will catch movies such as "Psycho," "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby" and the one that makes children scream for their parents –- "Bambi."

However, some of the most frightening characters ever invented never wielded a chainsaw or a deer rifle to scare the daylights out of people. Rather, a select group of evil lawyers used strategy to put an end to cases and clients they didn't like.

Hal Holbrook and Gene Hackman in 'The Firm'

Partners Oliver Lambert and Avery Tolar respond to resignations in a bold way: If a lawyer tries to leave their firm, they'll simply have them killed. While it sounds basic, the plot is more complicated. A new associate (played by Tom Cruise) learns after a few months of working for a prestigious law firm in Memphis that it's owned and operated by members of the mafia. Perhaps this is the reason why the managing partner prefers to keep a low profile and stick with the marketing plan of doing things differently than other firms.

Robert Duvall as Tom Hagan in 'The Godfather'

Who knew that a steady hand could be so lethal? As the adopted son of Vito Corleone, Tom Hagan also served as the family's lawyer. When Corleone makes a movie studio director an offer he can't refuse, "The Don" sends Hagan to Hollywood to make sure the deal goes through without a hitch. The next morning, the movie mogul awakens in his bed to find the severed head of his treasured horse on the pillow next to him. Hagan's quiet control guaranteed that blood relatives of the Corleone family always got away with murder.

Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens in 'Michael Clayton'

Arthur Edens is a brilliant lawyer, but he's a manic-depressive in dire need of prescription medication. Driven mad by the brutal nature of the legal profession, Edens frightens his partners because they never know when their prized litigator will suffer another nervous breakdown or which client will witness it. Edens is traumatized by defending a client known as a corporate killer because of the cancer-causing herbicides it manufactures, yet his own behavior is equally appalling. In this particular world of law, the only person completely safe from harm is the sole practitioner who doesn't have to worry about a fellow attorney destroying the firm's reputation.

Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in 'Michael Clayton'

With all due respect to actors in the legal thriller genre, no list would be complete (or fair) without the inclusion of a wacky woman. General counsel Crowder needs to exchange her business suit for a straight jacket after she hires assassins to kill Arthur Edens for uncovering wicked truths about her agrichemical company. Whereas Edens finds ethical clarity in the midst of mental confusion, cold-sweating Crowder is never cured of her ruthless ways.

Joe Pesci as Vincent Gambini in 'My Cousin Vinny'

While Vinny Gambini is not a psychopathic lawyer who kills associates, clients or expert witnesses, his mouth is as scary as his wardrobe. The film surrounds two teenagers who are wrongly accused of murder in rural Alabama. The more entertaining part showcases the outrageous antics of their Italian-American cousin, who tries to convince a jury of the "two yoots' innocence". (Ironically, Fred Gwynne, who will always be remembered as Herman Munster plays the deeply southern judge who presides over the trial.) Even though the film is destined to make viewers laugh until they cry, Pesci's character is haunting due to his inability to break away from an earlier role as Tommy DeVito in "Goodfellas." Pesci's chilling interrogation of crime partner, Henry Hill, is one of the reasons he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. "What do you mean, I'm funny?" DeVito demands. "What do you mean –- I'm funny -– you mean the way I talk?" Well, yes.

If murder and mayhem turn people's stomachs, perhaps they will partake of something sweeter for Halloween. Before he became a hit man and trial attorney in the movies, Joe Pesci was the singing guitarist for Joey Dee and The Starlighters, who took the song "Peppermint Twist" to number one in the charts in 1961.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word, LLC, a professional writing and editing agency based in Charleston.

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