If you are a typical high school student, where do you get your ideas on what attorneys do? Television and movies – that’s a pretty likely answer. So let’s role the tape and look at the reality of being a lawyer versus what the movies show.
For example, consider a clip from the 1998 movie, “A Civil Action.” After viewing it, Milwaukee Circuit Judge Carl Ashley’s reaction was, “It’s pretty sensationalized, but partly true.” Court rooms and law firms may not have movie-like drama often, but lawyers in real life do help people and can “make something right,” Ashley said.
In the movie, the lawyer played by John Travolta called some lawyers “bottom feeders.” But Marquette Law School Professor Rebecca Blemberg, a former prosecutor, said lawyers she has worked with almost all have been people who really want to help others, and a lot of people genuinely benefit from lawyers.
Milwaukee County Judge Joseph Donald said he wished some aspects of the movie were matched in real life. “I’d love to have theme music playing every time I’m in court,” he said.
And Marquette Law Professor David Papke said the real case that was the basis of “A Civil Action” didn’t turn out so well for the attorney for the plaintiffs – he tried to do the right thing and ended up filing for personal bankruptcy.
Joining the four in watching that movie clip (and several others) were 180 students from eight public and private schools that took part in Youth Law Day at Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall on March 12. The event was sponsored by the Law School, the Saint Thomas More Lawyers Society, and the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office. Even during their spring break week, about 20 Marquette Law students assisted during the mock trial and shared their educational experiences with the high school students. Law student Lindsey Anderson took a leading role in organizing the event.
The goal was to give students some understanding of the real world of lawyers. The program included a mock trial, with Judge Donald presiding, in which a high school girl sued for damages, particularly the cost of her dress, after her date told her the night before prom that he wasn’t going to take her. After the trial proceeding, the students broke into groups to act as the jury, bringing back a range of verdicts.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm spoke to the students over a pizza lunch, and the two judges and two law professors spoke during the panel discussion on the similarities and differences between the pop culture view of lawyers and the real world of the law.
After watching a clip from the movie “The Social Network,” based on the rise of Facebook, the panelists discussed the role of truth in a trial.
Ashley said participants in a trial are obligated to tell the truth. He admitted he had seen lawyers come close to the line in court, and sometimes he had taken some aside and to warn them about playing with the facts. On the other hand, he said, “It’s not your job to win the case for the other side.”
Papke said lawyers often tell “a lawyer’s type of truth,” which is a definition shaped by the procedures, rules, and tactics of legal practice.
In the end at a trial, “the truth is going to be whatever the jury says it is,” Donald said.
Donald aimed to give the students a broader message as well. One of the teachers escorting a class was his own former eighth grade teacher. He praised the impact of the teacher, Ron Johnson, on him and on many young people in Milwaukee for several decades. Donald urged the students to use the day at the Law School not only to learn about the law but to think about how “there is more to life than just hanging out.”