UCLA Legal Ethics Presentation Incorporates Movies About Lawyers

5:53 PM 3/12/2016

by Ashley Cullins

UCLA's professor of law emeritus Paul Bergman uses famous fictitious lawyers as examples.

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The UCLA Entertainment Symposium ended on a high note, thanks to professor of law emeritus Paul Bergman.

After two days of presentations, Bergman had the daunting task of convincing the crowd to stick around after lunch Saturday for the final panel — and that panel was on legal ethics.

He took a smart approach, using clips from movies about lawyers and quippy commentary to bring humor to the subject.

“There’s a serious undertone to all this,” Bergman said. “For lay audiences, non-lawyers, most of what they know about the legal system comes from law-related TV shows and movies. Nobody comes to you as a blank slate.”

So Bergman used a handful of films as a lens through which to discuss the American Bar Association’s rule that lawyers and judges have an obligation to instill respect for the legal system.

These three clips seemed to have the biggest reaction with the crowd.

  • 'Roxie Hart' (1942)

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    Bergman began with Roxie Hart, which stars Ginger Rogers as a “would-be starlet who has shot and killed her lover.”

    Her attorney is Billy Flynn, whose character Bergman describes as “exactly the lawyer you want if you’re going to be a starlet charged with murder” because he “cooked up a phony self-defense story to tell the jury.”

    Fun fact: The character of Billy Flynn, who also appears in the musical Chicago, is based on a real attorney named Bill Fallon. Bergman says he was the first lawyer to be called a “mouthpiece” and was known for winning 126 consecutive criminal trials in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which involved the mob.

  • 'The Verdict' (1982)

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    To address judges behaving badly in fiction, Bergman showed a clip from The Verdict, asking the crowd to keep in mind as they watched the rule that “judges are supposed to remain impartial and shall not engage in conduct that may reasonably be perceived as coercive.”

    Paul Newman plays a down and out lawyer named Frank Galvin who is representing a comatose woman in a medical malpractice case. In a settlement conference, the judge openly questions Galvin’s past and even winks while suggesting he should take a deal.

    “He’s not talking about the case,” Bergman pointed out. “He’s talking about the lawyer personally and throwing barbs at him.”

  • 'My Cousin Vinny' (1992)

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    While there are many examples of lawyers acting nobly in film, Bergman used one that was surprisingly as poignant as it was hilarious — My Cousin Vinny.

    In the film, Joe Pesci plays a young loudmouthed lawyer from New York named Vinny Gambini who is defending his cousins in a murder trial in Alabama.

    Bergman showed the famous scene in which Pesci interrogates a witness about the "two yutes" he saw at the scene of the crime and how he makes his grits for breakfast.  

    After the clip, which had the audience laughing out loud, Bergman lauded Gambini’s cross-examination technique.

    “You couldn’t draw up a better cross examination than that,” he says.

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