Updated: May 17, 2021
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am obsessed with the law, not just in practice but in popular culture also.
I devour legal thrillers on paper and on film and TV. Doesn’t even have to be a thriller, anything really that has a legal slant to it I am likely to be interested.
And despite this love of the law, when I was leaving school and going to university for the first time it was a degree in Aeronautical Engineering that I went on to do in 1992 to 1995 before diverting back to educate myself in all things contract, tort and equity.
Whilst I credit my willingness to transition from the dry, mathematical and technical world of designing aircraft structures to effectively restarting my third level academic life all over again four years down the line to a couple of lecturers in a small, now defunct, college in South East Alaska [long story – I’ll tell you some other time!]; there were also a couple of films that I watched in that era that probably inspired me to think again about a career that might otherwise have passed me by.
The two films had the same superstar lead actor appearing with an older actor not quite on the wane but certainly not at the height of their powers.
One of those actors was highly professional, believable and commanded respect on the screen, the other blew the world apart with his performance to the extent that no one really remembers more than five words of what he said.
The two films were the Tom Cruise vehicles – ‘The Firm’ and ‘A Few Good Men’. The former based on a book written by John Grisham ensured that I have bought all of his works ever since. I have read all of them except for the one that’s not about the law!
Gene Hackman and Jeanne Tripplehorn are excellent in the law firm gone bad tale and Demi Moore is also very watchable in the Navy courtroom drama that preceded it in the cinemas. However, without a doubt if you have seen or heard of the film you and everyone else will have Jack Nicholson’s image and iconic line running through your head.
But when I think of the film’s climactic scenes, it is not Colonel Nathan Jessup’s justification on oath that he ordered the men under his command, in particular the two unfortunates on trial for the manslaughter of William ‘Willy’ Santiago, pursuant to a ‘code red’ to inflict injury upon him that I recall most.
Like many an incidence of excessive heat and light it is what comes in the calm after the storm that we must listen out for and learn our lessons from.
Despite it being confirmed that the Defendants, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private First Class Louden Downey, were simply following the orders of their superior officer they are both convicted and sentenced to be dishonourably discharged from the Marine Corp.
In complete confusion the younger man, Downey, wonders why they were not acquitted.
‘What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!!’
The more insightful senior colleague, Dawson, has, however, come to the realisation of what it is and it is the words to live by in the legal profession:
‘Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.’
This is a powerful statement to live by regardless of whether you are a lawyer or a banker or a teacher or a politician. It’s simply human decency and compassion and empathy in action.
As the doctors might say ‘First do no harm!’