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.
~Ashley Russell, L’15~
Class Advisor, Susan Catterall, Esq.