Top Ten Best-Worst Lawyers in Fiction
Everyone loves a bad lawyer – usually more than an ethical lawyer. Is that why the stereotypical lawyer is a blood-sucking parasite? Because it's what popular culture consumers want? I can’t answer that with certainty, but I can say that lawyers get a bad rap. And I used to have a total lack of sense of humor about it, too. Why? Because as a typical lawyer, you are:
- a) working 15 hour days and almost never receiving a thank-you for your work,
- b) trying to resolve disputes on a daily basis where usually nice people display the worst attributes possible in humanity in their efforts to screw over fellow humans in business,
- c) the dumping ground to fix every problem from “fix this multi-million dollar liability clause we can’t negotiate” to “I can’t find paper for the printer – you print a lot, you’d know where it is”, to “I made out with the accounts guy who has a girlfriend and now I’m in love with him”,
- d) stuck eating nothing but the free bread at work because you don’t have enough time to get home, make a meal and get a solid 4-6 hours sleep in before you wake up and do it all again,
- e) surrounded by oblivious assholes who like to say, “But you’re paid so well” if you ever dare try and mention that it would be nice to have a little work-life balance, and
- f) surrounded by oblivious jackasses who continuously make lawyer jokes.
I have a better sense of humor about lawyers’ reputations these days. So much so that when I went swimming with sharks recently, I mentioned I wasn’t scared of them because they wouldn’t eat their own kind. See how far I’ve come?!?
From as far back as Shakespeare’s time, lawyers have been popular in fiction and have sat on both sides of the morality coin. Below is a list of my favorite lawyers in fiction. Agree, disagree, suggest additions or removals, throw insults at me if I don’t have your favorite on the list, and please send the list around to all of the lawyers and readers in your life.
10. She Hulk - The Marvel Universe
Jennifer Walters is the Hulk’s cousin, and also a highly-skilled lawyer. She was shot by a crime lord when she was a kid, and the Hulk happened to be in town and was the only good blood and DNA match available to give Jennifer a life-saving transfusion. Combine the Hulk’s blood with a very pissed off Jen, and she turns into She-Hulk at the hospital when the mobsters arrive to finish the job.
She-Hulk turns up in numerous Marvel publications, including She-Hulk, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.
As a lawyer in the Marvel Universe, She-Hulk is prolific and in demand. She’s been a supporter (at times) of Tony Stark, filed suits against Peter Parker, advised both sides in the Civil War, and worked in the Superhuman Division of a New York law firm.
9. Paul Biegler - 'Anatomy of a Murder' by Robert Traver
Biegler is the underdog, a self-described humble country lawyer up against a big-city prosecutor, in what seems like an unwinnable case – defending an army lieutenant who has killed a man for allegedly raping his wife, and who has no memory of the event. Despite his misgivings about his own abilities, the lieutenant is found not-guilty by reason of insanity. In case you plan on reading the novel, I won’t include a spoiler on the ending, which does not coincide with the end of the trial.
Robert Traver is a pen name; the actual author is John D. Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court judge, who based the novel on a real case where he was the defense attorney.
8. Jake Brigance - 'A Time to Kill' by John Grisham
Literary readers and writers love to hate Grisham, I know. But Grisham knows his subject matter (he was a successful lawyer for a decade), and he writes compelling dramas with plausible characters.
In A Time to Kill, Jake Brigance is the defense lawyer for Carl Lee Hailey, who shot two men who violently raped and killed his 10-year-old-daughter. Brigance is white, as were the men who raped and killed the little girl. Carl Hailey and his daughter were black. In a Mississippi town filled with racial tension, prejudice, and KKK members, Brigance not only agrees to defend Carl for a much lower sum than he should charge for a murder defense trial, but continues being Hailey’s legal counsel despite attempts being made on his life. In the end he convinces the jury to acquit Hailey by describing, in detail, the last hours of Hailey’s daughter’s life, then saying, “Now… imagine she were white.”
Literary purists will argue that Brigance is essentially a modern Sydney Carton. Even though Grisham’s inspiration for A Time to Kill came from his own trial experience, I can’t disagree with the similarities between the two novels. However, I do think that Brigance should get points for being a more flawed and therefore believable human than Carton.
7. Guillaumin - 'Madame Bovary' by Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary is a young woman, married to the boring Dr. Bovary. She does nothing to assist her situation by reading romance novels that fill her head with happily-ever-after crap. Dissatisfied with her life, Emma takes lovers and is the source of town gossip. Her adulterous affairs cause her not only mental distress, but also financial entanglements that lead indirectly to her death.
Before she dies, she sees a lawyer, Guillaumin, for expert advice on her financial situation. Guillaumin’s solution? He offers to solve her financial woes in return for sex. Gross, huh? Guillaumin isn’t necessarily a bad lawyer, he’s a bad person.
6. Sydney Carton - 'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens
Dickens’ novel is one of those classics that many readers admit they haven’t read yet. It’s also the inspiration for one of my favorite scenes from The Simpsons: Mr. Burns has a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, toiling away at what will be the world’s greatest novel. He picks up a page from a typewriter and reads: “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.”
A Tale of Two Cities follows several characters around the time of the French Revolution, one of them being Sydney Carton. Sydney’s lazy, an alcoholic, and has an utter disdain for everyone around him (maybe he worked with some previous incarnations of people I had to work with). But what makes me love Sydney as a character? It’s his unrequited love for the gentle Lucy Manette, which makes the reader question if a truly reprehensible human could love someone so refined, and therefore, Sydney must have some virtues. And in the end, Sydney proves the reader right, making the ultimate sacrifice for the one he loves.
5. Atticus Finch - 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
This is an entry that may rile up literary purists because it’s not up higher on the list, but Atticus is just too… nice. He’s a nice man, a good man, a responsible man, a moral man, a man that raises good children and does right by those around him and thinks good thoughts.
I also think he’s the original inspiration for Jack Brigance. Like Jack, Atticus is a lawyer who lives in a town tainted by racial intolerance and prejudice, and agrees to act on behalf of a black man. Like Brigance, Atticus’ actions make him subject to the derision of his townsfolk. My inner insufferable vegan also loves Atticus because he doesn’t hunt or fish.
4. John Milton - 'The Devil's Advocate' by Andrew Neiderman
I really considered placing Kevin Taylor (the young up-and-coming lawyer who gets a position at a big NYC law firm) on this list. But that would be an outrageous lie. He’s not my favorite lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate – my favorite lawyer is the evil, soulless bastard at the top. If you’re going to be an evil lawyer, you may as well do it literally and be on hell’s side, because everyone assumes you’re in league with the devil anyway. Kevin’s boss is one up on that – he always gets his morally bankrupt clients off scot-free, because he really is the devil.
Weird fact: Andrew Neiderman is the guy who has ghostwritten V.C. Andrews’ novels since she passed away in 1986.
Most of you would have seen the movie – it’s creepy as fuck. I’ll never forget Edward Norton, that sweet little altar boy, saying, “There never was an Aaron, counsellor.” Whoa.
But like so many good movies, Primal Fear started off as a novel, written by William Diehl. Martin Vail is the important Chicago lawyer who loves high-profile cases and is infamous for using legal technicalities to his clients’ advantage. Vail offers to do the defense case for Aaron Stampler on a pro bono basis. Stampler is an altar boy who is accused of murdering an archbishop. Vail’s motivation for doing the case for free is originally linked to publicity, but he becomes personally invested in the case, believing that his client is innocent. The judge finds Stampler not guilty by reason of insanity, but this is not so much due to Vail’s skills in the court room this time, as it is to do with Stampler’s own persuasive skills.
2. Balthazar/Portia - 'The Merchant of Venice' by Shakespeare
Portia’s the rich, hot housewife of Belmont. Everyone wants to marry her, but her father controls her choice in husband from beyond the grave, having her suitors engage in a competition for her hand. With a few tricks up her sleeve, she maneuvers the situation so that she ends up with the man of her choosing. This makes her sound like a vacuous beast, but she’s the smartest character in the story, and cross-dresses as a lawyer, saving her husband’s best friend, Antonio, during the big trial. She’s not technically a lawyer, but she appears as one in the court of the Duke of Venice, and outsmarts Shylock when he demands the pound of flesh from Antonio, stating that the contract only allows Shylock a pound of flesh, and it does not allow any shedding of Antonio’s blood. Personally, I think that wouldn’t hold in court, but hey, I love that Portia’s bound by sexist societal conventions and still manages to outsmart everyone.
1. Dr. Gonzo - 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' by Hunter S. Thompson
Between his loud shirts and love of narcotics, Dr. Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Samoan attorney” is the most outrageous lawyer ever written about – and he’s based on a real person. Most people have at least heard of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but in case you haven’t, it’s a creative non-fiction novel written by a sports journalist who goes to Las Vegas with Dr Gonzo (Oscar Zeta Acosta) to cover the Mint-400, a biker's race in the middle of the Nevada desert . And of course, they squeezed in a spot of drug and alcohol binging too.
“Oscar was not into serious street-fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250 lb Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach - but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a de facto suicidal conviction that he will die at the age of 33 - just like Jesus Christ - you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Especially if the bastard is already 33½ years old with a head full of Sandoz acid, a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt, a hatchet-wielding Chicano bodyguard on his elbow at all times, and a disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting geysers of pure blood off the front porch every 30 or 40 minutes, or whenever his malignant ulcer can't handle any more raw tequila.”
-Hunter S. Thompson, describing Oscar Zeta Acosta in Rolling Stone's Issue #254, December 15, 1977.
Honorary mentions: Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad and Mr Larry "Frenzy" Fischmann.
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