From Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman: Saints to Shysters in 55 Years

better call saul check

By Paul Levine

“In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system.” – Atticus Finch, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

“I’m number one on your speed dial, right next to your weed dealer.” – Saul Goodman, a/k/a Slippin’ Jimmy McGill on “Better Call Saul”

Oh, where have you gone, Atticus Finch?

Where is our paragon of virtue, our defender of human rights, our patron saint of lawyers – and parents – everywhere? While Finch is unsullied on the pages of Harper Lee’s iconic 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” (and in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film), he has been replaced in the modern courtroom by a new breed of mouthpiece.

atticus finch
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands tall, seeking justice.

Jimmy McGill, a/k/a Saul Goodman, the antihero of “Better Call Saul,” was a grifter and con artist before he earned his degree via correspondence courses from American Samoa Law School. Unwilling to leave his shady past behind, Jimmy hires skateboarders to set up phony accidents. He hustles residents of a retirement home with free food – Jello – in order to write their wills. Suspended from the practice of law for numerous ethical violations, he changes his name to Saul Goodman when he gets his parchment back. Why? The “homeboys,” he says, want “a member of the tribe” to represent them. Did I mention that his law office is in the storage room of a nail salon?

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman and Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler

Atticus Finch, he ain’t.

I’ve long had a theory that many young people in the 1960’s and 1970’s (including me) were influenced to go to law school by the notion of the saintly Atticus Finch. We pictured ourselves standing tall for justice, ala Gregory Peck in his white linen suit. We would be courageous under withering attack. We would “do good” and not worry about collecting our fees. After all, Finch’s clients sometimes paid him in chickens and beechnuts.

Then, we became real lawyers and were under pressure to bill our time at enormous rates to keep the engines of our law firms humming. We leased out our lives in 7.5 minute increments. Instead of representing the wrongfully accused and standing up to biased judges and juries, we wrote contracts for the sale of widgets or litigated divorces between equally abhorrent spouses. Or worse. In my case, this meant being assigned to defend the indefensible: asbestos manufacturers.

(For the record, I quit my partnership in a national law firm shortly after getting that “promotion.” Or, as I sometimes say, I stopped writing fiction in legal briefs to do the same in novels).

Of course, our popular culture didn’t turn from Atticus Finch to Saul Goodman overnight. In Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film “The Verdict” (adapted by David Mamet from Barry Reed’s novel), Paul Newman portrays a bedraggled lawyer reduced to scavenging for clients at funerals. Yet, it’s a story of redemption. The Newman character is the classic loner pitted against a corrupt judge and a shady defense lawyer, minions of an evil establishment.

Paul Newman as a lawyer seeking redemption in “The Verdict”

Newman is offered a handsome settlement to drop his malpractice case on behalf of a comatose young woman. The money could turn his life around, but it would also keep secret the doctor’s malpractice.

“I came here to take your money,” he says when a check is offered. “I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can’t do it. I can’t take it. Because if I take the money, I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.”

Good for him! To achieve redemption, the tarnished lawyer cannot be paid off. Hey, Gary Cooper didn’t skip town before High Noon.

The 1980’s also brought us “L.A. Law.” The show’s television lawyers were well-dressed, well-paid, and highly libidinous. Each episode opened with a firm meeting in which the managing partner urged the lawyers to collect their outstanding fees. Talk about verisimilitude! I attended countless meetings just like those.

Lawyers and judges have rarely fared as poorly as in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987), which portrayed the Bronx County Courthouse as a place of “vast and bilious gloom.” Wolfe’s protagonist is a vain and naive bond trader who falls “into the maw of the criminal justice system.” The courthouse is a hellish place where smalltime lawyers hustle for clients, and fierce old Judge Kovitsky spits on defendants who sass him.

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The courthouse in “Bonfire…” is a place of “vast and bilious gloom.”

The courthouse atmosphere reminded me of a Miami criminal defense lawyer I used to encounter in the corridors of the sadly misnamed “Justice Building.” Unhappy that a client claimed he didn’t have the cash promised for his arraignment, the lawyer would jam a hand into his client’s pocket. “Let’s see how much you have there!” he’d cry out, fishing for cash.

If you’re looking for the majesty of the law, don’t go near Scott Turow’s fictional Kindle County. In “Presumed Innocent” (1987), the protagonist is a morally ambiguous prosecutor accused of killing his mistress. His defense lawyer uses “subterranean pressures” on a judge, instead of evidence, to win the case. Elegantly written and highly realistic, “Presumed Innocent” is my favorite legal thriller of all time and influenced my own writing. In both that book and its follow-up, “The Burden of Proof” (1990), the guilty party is not discovered, much less punished. No wonder my own fictional lawyer, Jake Lassiter, talks about the “so-called justice system” in his debut novel “To Speak for the Dead.” Or, as Lenny Bruce put it, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.”

to speak
“To Speak for the Dead” introduced cynical lawyer Jake Lassiter in the first of fourteen novels

John Grisham’s blockbuster 1991 novel, “The Firm” might take the prize for the most cynical of all legal thrillers. The plot involved a Memphis law firm was actually part of the Mafia. Most firms, if you don’t make partner, you’re cut loose. In this one, they might kill you. No, you won’t find Atticus Finch in the law library of Bendini, Lambert and Locke. Instead, meet young Mitch McDeere (deer in the headlights?), a Harvard Law grad who’s seduced by the pay and the perks…until chaos and murder ensue.

One salutary development of the 1990’s was the emergence of fictional female lawyers penned by real female lawyers. Similarly, in real life, law firms were becoming more hospitable to women and ethnic minorities.

Lisa Scottoline, a Philadelphia lawyer, brought her considerable expertise to “Everywhere that Mary Went” (1994), the first of a series featuring gutsy lawyer Mary DiNuzio. Mary is a young associate trying to make partner in what we used to call a deep-carpet firm. She’s being stalked, and a murder follows. The book was nominated for an Edgar award, and Scottoline’s next novel, “Final Appeal,” won the award. lisa scottoline

All of which brings us back to “Better Call Saul.” We are drawn to him because he’s an underdog. He’s looked down on by his arrogant brother, a distinguished attorney in a major law firm. “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree,” the brother says, “is like a chimp with a machine gun.” And while we might deplore Jimmy/Saul’s tactics, there is something refreshing about his lawyering without the trappings of stuffy tradition. “Need a Will? Call McGill,” reads one ad. Then there’s his candor. “Don’t drink and drive,” he tells a client. “But if you do, call me.”

One final thought. If I get charged with murder, I might just call Saul. Because, if you recall, Atticus Finch lost that case. But Saul Goodman…oh, he’ll find a way to win.

(A version of this post appeared in Crime Reads).

Legal Thrillers and Rough Justice

legal thrillers

By Paul Levine

In legal thrillers, rough justice is better than none at all. To explain, let’s start with a quote from my favorite fictional lawyer.

“We eat what we kill. Hey, they don’t call us sharks for our ability to swim.” – Jake Lassiter

It’s been twenty-five years since Jake Lassiter uttered those words in TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD, the first of my series of legal thrillers featuring the linebacker-turned-lawyer.

Now, Lassiter defends Steve Solomon, who’s accused of killing a South Beach nightclub owner. To win the case, Lassiter must find a missing bar-girl, battle Russian gangsters, and avoid being indicted himself. Complicating everything: he thinks his client is lying…and he’s falling for the client’s lover, Victoria Lord.

That’s the setup for the latest of my legal thrillers, BUM RAP, which hit number one in the Amazon Kindle Store in July.

The new novel gives readers a chance to see how Lassiter has developed over the years. In the past, despite all his grumbling about ungrateful clients and lousy judges, he remained an optimist:

“If your cause is just, no case is impossible.” – LAST CHANCE LASSITER

Yet, he rejects the lofty language on the sign in the courtroom: “We Who Labor Here Seek Only the Truth.”

“There ought to be a footnote: subject to the truth being ignored by lying witnesses, concealed by sleazy lawyers, excluded by inept judges, and overlooked by lazy jurors.” – NIGHT VISION

Legal Thrillers: The Games Lawyers Play

He knows the games lawyers play, in and out of court:

“A good lawyer is part con man, part priest…promising riches if you pay the fee, damnation if you don’t.” – STATE vs. LASSITER

He turns down cases, even when he needs the money:

“I could have used the work, but I prefer cases I believe in. Best is to have a client you like, a cause that’s just, and a check that doesn’t bounce. Two out of three and you’re ahead of the game.” – FLESH & BONES

legal thrillers bum rap
The latest of the Jake Lassiter legal thrillers.

He looks for loopholes in the Canons of Ethics:

“I won’t lie to a judge, bribe a cop, or sleep with a client’s wife…unless I knew her first.” – MORTAL SIN

That noted writer of legal thrillers, William Shakespeare famously penned: “What’s past is prologue.” (I consider “The Merchant of Venice” one of the early legal thrillers. Talk about rough justice!)

Lassiter’s view is a little more earthy:

“Our past clings to us like mud on rusty cleats.” – BUM RAP

Against all odds, Lassiter still believes in justice, or at least, his version of it:

“Justice is the North Star, the burning bush, the holy virgin. It cannot be bought, sold, or mass produced. Justice is intangible and invisible, but if you are to spend your life in its pursuit, it is best to believe that it exists. When you fail, fight for the next best thing. Rough justice is better than none at all.”LASSITER

Legal Thrillers: Rough Justice Isn’t Pretty

So just what is rough justice? Pretty much, the ends justify the means. A murderer beats the rap but takes the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. Or vigilante justice or personal retribution. Hey, I didn’t say rough justice was pretty.

This is the key to Lassiter’s character in all eleven of his legal thrillers. He believes in the overriding importance of the quest for justice. He will work outside the law to obtain a just result, or some close approximation. Twenty-five years after starting the quest, he’s still hard at work on the job.

(BUM RAP is available in e-book, print, and audio, and all of the Lassiter legal thrillers can be found on Paul Levine’s AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE. Kindle Unlimited members read FREE. Just a few bucks for everyone else. Kindle Unlimited is now available in USA, UK, Canada, Mexico, India, Brazil, Germany, France, Spain, and Japan).

Courtroom Drama: Trials & Errors

courtroom drama

By Paul Levine

In 17 years as a trial lawyer, I saw a lot of courtroom drama. But I never witnessed a judge shouting “Order in the court!” Still, that hasn’t stopped me from writing scenes in which the judge angrily silences an unruly mob, his gavel echoing like a rifle shot.

I’ve taken liberties, but mostly small ones. Nothing irritates me more than a courtroom scene that’s dead wrong. Recently, I was skimming a promising debut novel that involves a murder trial.

“Does the prosecution intend to call the defendant to testify?” the judge asks.

Maybe if we’re in China, I thought.

In the U.S.A., there’s the little matter of the Fifth Amendment. The choice to testify belongs solely to the defendant. The prosecution cannot call the defendant to testify.

The Worst Courtroom Drama in History

The prize for Most Ludicrous Courtroom Drama Ever goes to the film “Double Jeopardy,” a 1999 Ashley Judd potboiler.

courtroom drama potboiler
Courtroom Drama: Ashley Judd has a foolproof way to get away with murder…but it would never work.

A woman convicted of killing her husband gets early release from prison and discovers her hubby had faked his death and is still alive. She decides to kill him because “double jeopardy” prevents her from being charged with his murder a second time.

No, it doesn’t! The supposed murder six years earlier is a different crime, with different facts at a different time and place. The woman can be charged if she kills the faker today. (If it were up to me, the screenwriter would go to jail along with the homicidal woman).

If you want a tough case, how’s this?   You remember the television show starring Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal, a ditzy young, mini-skirted lawyer.  Well, once Ally strongly considered the possibility of suing God.

courtroom drama ally
Courtroom drama was never as nuts as on “Ally McBeal.”

No wonder Wikipedia describes the show as a “surreal dramedy.”  To be fair, Ally actually refused to sue God on behalf of a little boy dying of leukemia. The kid came from a hard-luck family. Years earlier, a lightning bolt had killed the boy’s father. Another lawyer in her firm suggested that the lightning was an “act of God,” so they could sue the Big Guy for that, as well as for the kid’s leukemia. Who says we don’t need tort reform?

The portrayal of the justice system in popular entertainment has changed substantially over the years. In Perry Mason’s world, the D.A. was a likeable dullard, and every client was innocent. More recently, on “Law & Order,” the prosecutors were indignant and intelligent, and the defendants almost always guilty.

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Sam Waterston portrayed prosecutor Jack McCoy in television’s most successful courtroom drama series.

My favorite character was Jack McCoy, the hard-nosed prosecutor given to confrontational dialogue:

“Your grief might seem a little more real had you not just admitted you cut off your wife’s head.”

“The last time I checked, ‘stupid’ isn’t a defense to murder.”

“You played me, you son-of-a-bitch!”

Courtroom Drama Goofs

Here are some of the common courtroom drama fallacies foisted upon us by screenwriters and novelists:

“We lost the case on a legal technicality.” Really? Is that what you call the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures?

“Put yourself in my client’s shoes,”the lawyer says to the jury.  No way! In real life, it’s commendable to live by the “Golden Rule.” In closing argument, it will get you a mistrial.

“Objection! Counsel is badgering the witness.” I don’t know how this got started, but it’s epidemic on television. There’s no such objection under the Rules of Evidence. “Argumentative” gets the point across, and it’s what real lawyers say.

Still, I had fun with this objection in my novel “Lassiter.” After the prosecutor accuses our hero of badgering the witness, Lassiter responds: “It’s my job to badger the witness. I get paid to badger the witness.”

courtroom drama lassiter
Hard-boiled lawyer Jake Lassiter gets paid to badger witnesses.

My Courtroom Drama Mea Culpa

My legal thrillers are not immune to criticism. A dozen years ago, I co-created the Supreme Court drama, “First Monday,” on CBS.  The Wall Street Journal gleefully described the show as a “moronic melodrama.” Yeah, I feel the same about the paper’s editorials.

Then there was the Justice Department lawyer who took issue with the portrayal of the Supreme Court in my novel “Impact.”   (Originally published in hardcover as “9 Scorpions.”) The legal thriller is about an attempt to fix a case at the nation’s highest court. In a scholarly piece – it had 171 footnotes! — John B. Owen, Esq. objected to a female law clerk having an affair with her boss, the newest, youngest Justice. Wouldn’t happen, he wrote in the University of California Law Review.  What really irked Barrister Owen, however, was a scene at the Court’s Christmas party where the female clerk performed a partial strip-tease.  Lacked “authenticity,” he wrote.

Owen also criticized David Baldacci’s “The Simple Truth” and Brad Meltzer’s “The Tenth Justice,” both set at the Supreme Court. He found both unrealistic and declared that “‘The Tenth Justice’ won’t win any awards for its attention to finer detail.”

But doesn’t that miss the point? “Finer detail” is not what fiction is all about. A novelist need only create an imaginary world that is real in the broader sense. Compelling stories involving the quest for justice or the thirst for revenge or a host of other inner needs can emerge from a setting that is an approximation of reality. And if all else fails, write a scene involving a strip-tease at the Supreme Court’s Christmas party.

Paul Levine

Mass Incarceration: Sentencing Insanity

mass incarceration

By Paul Levine

Todd and Garrett were best friends from the west coast of Florida who loved fishing and drinking beer. After one long, hot day of doing both, they sat in Todd’s Ford pick-up at a gas station and argued over something stupid, as best friends sometimes do. Todd wanted to drive to his girlfriend’s house; Garrett wanted to go home.

Someone threw a loopy, beery punch.

And they struggled.

One of the two pulled Todd’s .40 caliber Glock from under the front seat. (The evidence was in conflict over who grabbed the gun, which they tussled over). The gun discharged, the bullet hitting a roof strut. A shard of the ricochet struck Garrett in the head. A stricken Todd comforted his wounded pal and called 9-1-1.

Garrett survived, thanks to Todd’s quick action. Todd went on trial in Manatee County, charged with aggravated assault with a firearm. Now, a legal quiz. What’s your verdict?

(1) Todd was acquitted because the shooting was an accident;

(2) Todd was convicted, but due to a clean record, received probation;

(3) Todd was convicted and sentenced to three years because a gun was involved.

(4) Todd was convicted, and the judge reluctantly sentenced him to 25 years in prison, because Florida law requires it.

If you said number four, you’re right. Aggravated assault with a firearm resulting in an injury draws a 25 year minimum mandatory sentence, regardless of the circumstances.

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A victim of mass incarceration: the real Todd’s prison photo.

Todd is serving his time in Avon Park Correctional Institution in Highlands County. He is one of thousands of prisoners, who in my opinion, are serving absurdly long terms due to the Legislature’s imposition of minimum mandatory sentences.

The Florida Legislature has taken sentencing discretion out of the hands of the judiciary where certain crimes are involved. It’s part of the troubling nationwide trend of mass incarceration. My thesis is a simple one: Mandatory minimum sentences overcrowd our prisons and create social problems.

Mass Incarceration Costs $74 Billion a Year

Here are the numbers, as reported by CNBC on its special, “Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry”:

“With more than 2.3 million people locked up, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of 100 American adults is behind bars — while a stunning one out of 32 is on probation, parole or in prison. This reliance on mass incarceration has created a thriving prison economy. The states and the federal government spend about $74 billion a year on corrections, and nearly 800,000 people work in the industry.”

Here’s another statistic worth considering.  It costs about $26,000 per inmate in prison and about $3,400 per felon on supervised probation.

Maybe you watched the recent PBS “Frontline” episode entitled “Prison State: the Impact of Mass Incarceration in the United States.” Many of the stories of families torn apart were heartbreaking.

mass incarceration and politic
Political policy, not crime, drives mass incarceration, the authors argue.

Or maybe you read the book, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?” by Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll, both professors in the University of California system. Their answer to the mass incarceration dilemma is quite simple. Prison population has not been driven to record numbers because of an increase in crime, but rather because of changes in political policy. (In fact, crime rates have fallen by almost half in the last 25 years).

All 50 states have adopted mandatory sentencing laws. Since the 1960’s, the incarceration rate – the number of persons imprisoned in relation to the population – has nearly quadrupled! In actual numbers, of course, the number is far greater. The rate of Americans in prison is roughly fifteen times greater than Japan, five times greater than Great Britain, and more than triple that of Mexico.

mass incarceration policy
Mass incarceration is expensive and harmful public policy.

In raw numbers, our prisons and jails hold an astounding 2.2 to 2.3 million people. Rather than diminish crime, mass incarceration may, in fact, increase crime as well as poverty. As recently reported by Eduardo Porto in The New York Times, “In the U.S., Punishment Often Comes Before the Crimes”:

“A growing body of research has concluded that the costs of the [mass incarceration] strategy are much steeper than prisoners room and board. Anna Aizer of Brown University and Joseph J. Doyle Jr. of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that putting a minor in juvenile detention reduced his likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percentage points and increased his odds of being incarcerated as an adult by 23 percentage points.

“More than half of inmates have minor children. Their children are almost six times as likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Family incomes fall 22 percent during the years fathers are incarcerated.”

I think about those inmates and their children a lot.  And I think, too, about Todd.

On the federal front, where about half of all inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes, the Obama Administration is doing something about the most egregious sentences. For federal inmates imprisoned more than ten years – and not convicted of crimes of violence – there is now a “Get Out of Jail” card. For more details on this subject, take a look at  Super Lawyer Marcia Silvers’ excellent blog, “Commutation of Sentence: The Window Opens.”

For the sake of Todd and thousands like him, it would be in the national interest for the Florida Legislature and other states to embrace sentence reform and put an end to mass incarceration.

Paul Levine