What Can Writers Learn From the 1979 film AND JUSTICE FOR ALL?

Book excerpt from A Lawyer's Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms by defense lawyer Shaun Kaufman and PI-writer Colleen Collins.

Ten of Our Favorite Legal Films: And Justice for All

And Justice for All (1979): Starring Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe and Christine Lahti; directed by Norman Jewison. In the story, Pacino plays jaundiced lawyer Arthur Kirkland, who openly deplores the lack of justice in the law. Pacino received an Oscar nomination for best actor, and the writers, Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, received a nomination for best original screenplay.

Shouldn’t one be concerned that our criminal justice system seems more intent and efficient in locking up drug offenders than in prosecuting complex, white-collar, corporate crime?
— Defense lawyer Arthur Kirkland, "And Justice for All"

Kirkland’s grim view of justice increases after he’s forced to represent a judge he despises (played by Forsythe) who has been charged with rape. Their mutual dislike provides an ongoing strong, compelling conflict in the story.

So how did Kirkland get forced to defend a judge he despises? Seems the judge blackmailed Kirkland by threatening to report him for disclosing a client’s confidentiality. This premise is somewhat questionable as it is not entirely clear if Kirkland really committed an ethical violation, but it is also plausible enough to shift the story into a higher gear.

Cast of Quirky Characters

There’s also a cast of quirky characters in And Justice for All, including a nutso judge, played brilliantly by Jack Warden, who acts out his suicidal impulses by eating his lunch on a high-up window ledge and testing how far he can fly his helicopter on a near-empty tank of gas. Too eccentric? Possibly. However, if the agency overseeing judicial conduct for that jurisdiction were informed about a ledge-eating, empty-tank flying judge, and it validated that this was true, his days sitting on the bench would come to an abrupt end.

 A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

A judge once stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom

On the other hand, as long as this whacky judge isn’t reported, his eccentricities could continue for a while. Trust us on this one. Shaun, a criminal lawyer for several decades, once had a judge who stopped proceedings because he saw werewolves prowling the courtroom.

And then there was the time in a high-profile, tension-filled trial, where the judge kept checking out a Playboy magazine that no one saw except the defense (Shaun) and prosecutor whenever they approached the bench to discuss a legal point.

Law vs. Justice

And Justice for All is an incisive examination of corruption and ethics within the justice system. It is also a story about the disparity between following the word of the law versus justice being served. Maybe one of these issues sparks an idea for your legal character or story.

At the end of And Justice For All, Kirkland (Pacino) delivers a mild-melding, no-holds-barred opening statement that is a masterful display of honesty and an indictment of the folly of the legal system that every lawyer wants to give, and what no ethics board would ever allow. That alone is a reason to watch this movie.

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