Category Archives: Advanced Legal Research

ALR Student’s Corner: The Rainmaker: A Review

Legal research was conducted differently in 1990’s than it is today and that difference shaped how law was practiced. Technology has advanced a great deal in 20 years and lawyers are now able to reach the vital information they need in a quicker and more precise way than ever before.

The Rainmaker , based on the John Grisham novel of the same name, is set in the mid-1990s and involves a young man, recently graduated from law school and eager to break into the profession. Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) has come from an impoverished background and graduated from the University of Memphis Law School.  Not coming from a privileged background and lacking the connections which would have opened the doors to prestigious Memphis firms, Rudy works part time as a bartender as he applies for attorney positions.

Rudy’s struggle to become an esteemed attorney is an uphill battle from the start. The obstacles he needs to overcome include:

  • Becoming an associate for a corrupt attorney, portrayed by Mickey Rourke, whose offices are raided by the F.B.I.
  • Setting up a “practice” with Deck Shefflet (Danny DeVito), a paralegal who has failed the bar multiple times and who has an unsteady grasp on the concept of professional responsibility
  • His own lack of trial experience
  • A handful of time-intensive, destined-to-lose cases and poor clients
  • An unscrupulous opposing council (Jon Voight)
  • A trial judge who lacks patience for any case which gums up the judicial process and, finally
  • Easy access to affordable Westlaw, LexisNexis or alternatives.

The practice of law and likewise, researching the law, was different in the 1990s from what it is today.  Twenty years ago, legal research was conducted, for the most part, in print.  Westlaw and LexisNexis existed, but usually only at law schools, large firms or for courts and government.  The internet had just begun to take off about 1996 and only gradually did legal research services come to be hosted on an electronic platform.  Eventually, lower-cost alternatives to Westlaw and LexisNext also began to develop.

This lack of ease, when it comes to research, is very intriguing. We live in a world where individuals are so technologically savvy that it is amazing to think there was a time in our recent past when we didn’t have information readily available at our finger tips.

The one major resource throughout the entire film that would have helped Rudy would have been access to online research. At that time, even print research was a challenge for solo practitioners or attorneys in small firms. Attorneys who couldn’t afford reporters, digests, statutes and rule books were required to physically travel to state, county or law school libraries in order to conduct research or update their authorities. Rudy’s lack of practical trial experience was an issue for him as well.  There were many precedential cases that he was not familiar with.

Having access to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Federal Rules of Evidence, or the evidence rules within the state in which he practiced would have been so beneficial to a young lawyer with no real court experience. The books that he carried around were accessible through only the index or the table of contents.  He couldn’t simply type a word into a search box and retrieve the answer. He had to do a lot of digging and looking in order to find the correct answer.

The technological developments which have made WestlawNext, Lexis Advance, Bloomberg Law, etc. more accessible have made it easier for lawyers to conduct thorough legal research. This has really helped new lawyers. In the movie, the seasoned lawyers were familiar with a great deal of top cases, rules, and procedures, and this gave them a wild advantage over the new eager lawyers.  Online information   services have helped streamline legal research by making it easier to find and retrieve relevant case law and rules.

One aspect of a case in the Rainmaker concerns stolen evidence.  Earlier in the movie Mickey Rourke’s character had told Rudy and Deck about a case in the same state with the same issues.  Today, it’s likely that Rudy would have been able to conduct his own research through one of the major subscription services or a lower cost alternative.  He wouldn’t have relied upon the memory of a seasoned attorney.

Today, as students and young attorneys, we tend to take for granted the ease by which we locate relevant cases. We shouldn’t; we’re fortunate to have access to the online services.

As the legal profession has advanced technologically, we like to believe that the ethics and integrity of lawyers have grown exponentially as well. In the movie we see lawyers who are doing the wrong thing, coercing clients and trying to get around the ethics of the profession. The ethical shame and lack of research technology shaped the movie and really showed the struggles that were faced by the legal profession back then.

Lawyers today strive for excellence and the legal profession polices itself more rigorously.  Today the advancement of legal research and the ethical stronghold of the profession have led to the greater production of outstanding lawyers, which will hopefully lead to lawyers being more widely accepted and not continuously looked at as sharks that are out for blood.

Rudy successfully wins his case, but turns away from the law.  Once he was exposed to the ugly side of the legal profession, he decided he’d had enough.

The DVD, “The Rainmaker” is available as part of the Charlotte School of Law Library collection.

~Ashley Russell, L’15~

Class Advisor, Susan Catterall, Esq.

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ALR Student’s Corner: Anatomy of A Murder: A Review

The movie, Anatomy of a Murder (1959), is a film rife with ethical issues for which the modern day attorney would most certainly be disciplined. Former District Attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) has opened a private practice after losing his last bid for DA (District Attorney). Biegler is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) after her husband shot and killed the man who allegedly raped her. Biegler meets with Lt. Fredrick Manion (Ben Gazzara) to discuss possible defenses for the Barney Quill murder. Biegler explains to Lt. Manion that there are only four defenses to murder. Lt. Manion admits to the murder but believes that his defense, “irresistible impulse,” is justifiable.  However, Biegler tells Lt. Manion that the defense does not apply to him.  Biegler claims to be “just a small country lawyer” yet he is able to introduce evidence to the jury by asking questions of the witnesses while at the same time knowing those questions would be stricken from the record. His strategy is to plant the thoughts in the minds of the jury. At one point, after the judge admonished Biegler for his behavior Lt. Manion asks “How the jury can forget something they’ve already heard?” and Biegler replies “They can’t”. Biegler’s purpose is deliberate and his client’s “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” verdict is owed in great part to these courtroom theatrics; this is especially true given that neither Laura nor Fredrick Manion are very likeable characters.

The American Bar Association (ABA) devised the Rules of Professional Conduct to guide attorneys in the appropriate behavior in their personal and professional lives. Each state has its own Rules of Professional Conduct adapted, whole or in part, from the ABA’s rules. These rules are a guide for lawyers who do not want to face discipline and possible disbarment.  In the film, witnesses for the prosecution and the defense appear to have been coached by the attorneys both prior to and during the trial. State v. McCormick states, in part, that an attorney can explain the applicable law to the witness and prepare the witness to give his testimony at trial but cannot not put the lawyer’s words into the witness’s mouth. State v. McCormick, 298 N.C. 788 (1979). The court is clear that as experts in the field of law attorneys can explain the law but cannot coach the law. The witness in either civil or criminal trials need to tell his story as he saw it without information being provided to him by the lawyer.

North Carolina, for example, has adopted a version of the Rules of Professional conduct and relies upon the guidelines to encourage judges and lawyers alike to meet obligations to each other, to litigants and to the system of justice.  In this way the twin goals of civility and professionalism are achieved. It is important to remind ourselves that the rules serve the higher purpose of protecting our profession from those that would forego civility and fairness to win at all cost. We as professionals are expected to zealously advocate for our clients in a manner that comports to the rules of ethics.

Note: Anatomy of a Murder is available from the DVD collection of the Charlotte School of Law Library.

~Alison Leahy, L’16~

Class Advisor – Susan Catterall, Esq.

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ALR Student’s Corner: Deliberate Intent: Race, Gender, Murder, and the First Amendment: A Review

Deliberate Intent, a 2000, made for cable movie, directed by Andy Wolk, begins with a hitman rehearsing the step-by-step instructions of a carefully planned execution of three people. The film initially appears to be both suspenseful and fictional. It is, however, based on actual facts, including the suit, Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc. and the book published by Paladin Press, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.  Interestingly enough, the film dispels a few stereotypes. First, the co-conspirators and the victims are all African American. This is not unusual as crime studies state that most murders are intraracial; (84% of white homicide victims are murdered by whites, and 93% of black victims are murdered by blacks). It is our perceptions about the types of crimes committed by the different races that make this film interesting and intriguing. Notwithstanding the fact, that most familial murders committed for purposes of financial gain are committed by middle-class white males, is it reasonable to believe that a wealthy African American man would hire a hit man to kill his ex-wife and child for money—even by Hollywood standards? Viewers learn within the first thirty minutes of the film, that Deliberate Intent is based on true events. Lawrence “J.T.” Horn, a wealthy African American and former Motown engineer, initiates a “murder for hire” of his family for the millions of dollars that was set aside in trust for his son.  Viewers also realize that the film is not about the pursuit and conviction of the killers; what is truly at stake is the constitutional protection of free speech. The First Amendment is not triggered by the malicious conversation between Lawrence “J.T.” Horn (James McDaniel) and hitman James Perry (Clark Johnson) that led to the death of Horn’s ex-wife, quadriplegic son, and son’s nurse. It is implicated because Perry’s source of instructions used to carry out the murders was written in a book.

Deliberate intent is based on the memoir of First Amendment Attorney, Rod Smolla (Timothy Hutton).  Throughout the film, it is easy to forget that this is not about a criminal trial (convicted killers Horn and Perry are imprisoned early on in the film), but a civil action against Paladin, the book’s publisher, for allegedly providing a “blueprint for the crime” in a book entitled, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Contractors. Additionally, I (and I suspect most viewers) spent quite a bit of time picturing the man who wrote a manual on how to commit a murder for hire.

Howard Siegel (Ron Rifkin) recruits Smolla (Timothy Hutton) to assist him in representing family members suing the publisher, Paladin Enterprises. Smolla for personal and professional reasons, is initially reluctant. Ironically, Smolla was the attorney who had defended publisher Larry Flynt against a lawsuit initiated by Jerry Falwell over statements about him in Hustler magazine.  It could be inferred that Smolla is willing to reconcile his conflicting positions on the Paladin and Hustler cases because he knows that this suit could bring about a significant legal precedent.

The interesting implications of the case are disputed in lengthy courtroom segments that show Smolla arguing to prove that Perry (the assassin) used the book as a guide to kill three people. It was interesting that although the plaintiff’s team utilized a line of cases that involved the use of speech in the aiding and abetting of a crime, the arguments used were unrelated to Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

Naturally and legally, a number of large media companies, spent millions of dollars trying to prevent the case from moving forward. Knowing that no book had been held responsible for inciting violence, Paladin relied heavily on the First Amendment. The essence of Paladin’s argument was that “{t}his is a book, it’s not a gun, it’s not a bomb; therefore it should be protected under the 1st Amendment, no matter what it says.” Initially I was not convinced that the plaintiff’s argument could withstand First Amendment jurisprudence. However it is Smolla’s last argument that convinces the Court that the egregious nature of the murder leaves even the greatest proponents of the First Amendment wondering and/or conceding whether murder is too “high a price to pay for that protection.” The Supreme Court rejected the publisher’s claim that the First Amendment shielded Paladin from liability. Days before arguments were to be heard before the Maryland Supreme Court, Paladin settled with the family of the victims.

Finally, the film Deliberate Intent provides an intelligent example of a precedent-setting suit, which marks the first time that a book publisher had been held financially (and potentially legally) liable for a crime committed by a reader. Deliberate Intent also forces us to confront our stereotypes about which groups commit what types of murders and what types of individuals write about “how to commit a murder.” At the end of the film—right before the credits—viewers learn that the book Hitman was written by an anonymous woman.

Note: The film Deliberate Intent is not available as part of the Charlotte School of Law Library DVD collection.

~ Dana King, Class of 2015 ~

Susan Catterall, Esq., Class Advisor

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ALR Student’s Corner: The Firm: What Can Overbilling Do For You?

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There are several areas of the legal profession which will remain timeless; it is from these areas that learning from the mistakes of others is critical to ensuring long, stable careers for ourselves.  Better yet, learning from mistakes made by fictitious characters has become the standardized norm by which the rules of professional responsibility is taught.  The Firm, a film adaptation of John Grisham’s novel by the same name, teaches attorneys about the repercussions which may results from their glaring professional responsibility mistakes. (SPOILER ALERT).  Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise, is a recent law school graduate who has been hired by a blue chip firm half-way across the country.  After becoming deeply entangled with the firm, he learns the firm represents a mob family.  McDeere’s dilemma becomes whether to risk his life leaving the firm or continue representing an alleged crime family.  Ultimately, McDeere uses the information that the firm had been overcharging the family/clients to convince the family to pardon him for having likely exposed them to scrutiny by the FBI.

The message we may take away comes from what McDeere’s mentor, Avery Tolar played by Gene Hackman, tells him once he joins the firm: “Everything depends on billing, how many hours you spend even thinking about a client…I don’t care if you’re stuck in traffic or shaving or sitting on a park bench.”  Rule 1.5 of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct covers fee and fee-related conduct.  Briefly, a lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee or charge or collect a clearly excessive amount for expenses. The factors to be considered in determining whether a fee is clearly excessive include the time and labor required relative to the novelty of the issue, likelihood that employment by potential client will preclude other employment, customary fees, time and limitations, relationship with the client, whether the fee is fixed or contingent, etc.

Here, the mob family had deep ties with the blue chip firm for some time.  There was no exclusivity in time spent relative to other potential work the firm may have conducted outside of illicit activities conducted through the firm (i.e., hiding mob proceeds offshore).

McDeere learns the firm is overcharging the family and uses this information to get out of potential trouble with the family.  McDeere tells the family he needs their permission to forward the family’s invoices to the government in order to take care of the overbilling.  The error in regard to procedure is McDeere’s explanation to the mob family/clients that the FBI has any hand to play in attorneys overcharging their clients.  The use of mail fraud to give the federal agency leeway to investigate the firm is a completely separate issue from the compensation agreements between the firm and the family relative to the family receiving any type of remedy.  This is another example of where films take poetic license for the sake of the plot and do not differentiate between criminal and civil liability.

Procedurally in North Carolina, subsection (f) of Rule 1.5 provides disputes regarding a fee for legal services must go through the North Carolina State Bar’s program of fee dispute resolution.  Attorneys must provide proper notice if they are claiming the dispute; attorneys must act in good faith if the clients submit a proper dispute request.

McDeere had made backups of the family’s legal files as insurance in case his plan did not go smoothly.  Ultimately, he explained to the mob family, “Whatever I know, wherever I go, I am bound to attorney-client privilege.  I am exactly a ship carrying a cargo that will never reach a port.  As long as I am alive, the ship will always be at sea.”  McDeere receives the authorization from the mob family to release copies of the family invoices to the FBI, and ultimately leaves the firm with his life.  The moral of the story is attorneys should not overbill their clients; also, attorneys should not overbill the mob. The Firm is available in the Charlotte School of Law Library DVD collection.

For more information about the Rules of Professional Conduct or for specific attorney lookup, visit http://www.ncbar.gov/public/.

~ Ray Olang, L’15 ~

Class Advisor – Susan Catterall, Esq.

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ALR Student’s Corner: A lesson in ethical lawyering through an analysis of Presumed Innocent, by Alan J. Pakula.

When contemplating the role of an attorney, one generally associates traits of honesty, righteousness, and selflessness as being the bedrock of all officers of the court. This is particularly true of those attorneys who are the voice of the people – the prosecutors. The American Bar Association publishes a series of Criminal Justice Standards, which “are intended to be used as a guide to professional conduct and performance.” Many, if not all, of the standards set out for attorneys are common sense, i.e., duties that are inherently understood by most professionals, such as avoiding conflicts of interest. Failure to adhere to these standards has the potential for destroying not only an attorney’s career but also his life.

The 1990 drama, Presumed Innocent, portrays the story of a Deputy Prosecutor Rusty Sabich – Harrison Ford – who is assigned to a case involving the murder of a female colleague. Yet, from the very beginning of his assignment, Rusty failed to disclose that he was having an affair with the now murdered colleague. The story unfolds further as a new District Attorney is elected, placing Rusty in the crosshairs of an internal investigation surrounding the alleged improprieties in his handling of the murder case. Within days of the investigation commencing, Rusty is brought before a grand jury and indicted for the murder of his former colleague and mistress, Carolyn Polhemus.

Of course this legal fiction is hyped up with traditional trial surprises such as when the defense locates exculpatory evidence at the last minute. Yet, every law student, lawyer, and judge can take away some important lessons, and perhaps reminders, of their duties as legal professionals.

ABA Criminal Justice Standard 3-1.3 (Conflicts of Interest) advises “prosecutors to avoid conflicts of interest with respect to his or her official duties.” Moreover, subsection (f) states “A prosecutor should not permit his or her professional judgment or obligations to be affected by his or her own political, financial, business, property, or personal interests.” Rusty failed to disclose his conflict of interest with the case, specifically, his romantic relationship with the victim. Making matters worse, Rusty conducted himself in ways that suggested he was controlling the investigation and leading police officers away from finding evidence that would otherwise point to himself as the murderer.

The viewer, of course, knows that Rusty isn’t guilty and there is comfort in the fact that the movie ends with Rusty’s aquittal. The truth regarding who killed Ms. Polhemus remained a mystery. Yet, in a typically Hollywood twist, with only minutes left in the movie, Rusty undertakes some work on his outside fence. Rusty discovers, in his shed, a hammer/hatchet like tool with hair and blood on it. This is important because at trial, the prosecution had an expert testify that Ms. Polhemus was struck with a hammer like object that had a sharp edge – like a hatchet. It is at this moment of discovering the bloody tool, that both Rusty and the viewer realize Ms. Polhemus was actually killed by Rusty’s jealous wife, Barbara.

In addition to the blatant violations of professional standards already discussed, there are a couple of key lessons that shouldserve as important reminders for law students and lawyers. During the initial investigation into Rusty’s handling of the Polhemus murder, one of the newly appointed ADAs confronts Rusty and openly accuses him of murder. Rusty, in an apparent fit of rage, turns around and pushes the ADA, telling him “yes, I killed her.” Later on at trial, the ADA attempts to have this statement introduced as evidence of an admission to the crime, yet the judge does not allow it, because the ADA had been alone when he questioned Rusty and cannot now seek to enter evidence of a conversation which is essentially his word against the defendant’s.

This movie is available in DVD format at the Charlotte School of Law Library.

~Dean Castaldo, L’15~

Class Advisor, Susan Catterall, Esq.

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