Monday, March 12, 2012

My Cousin Vinny: a story about legal education

The Abnormal Use blog is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the release of the movie My Cousin Vinny by publishing a series of comments and interviews and also by sponsoring a multi-blog discussion on the movie.  Go here to get more information.

When my students ask me to recommend movies, I give them a list I have prepared over the years in which I have organized the titles under certain main “themes.”  No one is surprised to see My Cousin Vinny on the list, but some are surprised I have listed it under the theme of “legal education.”  So, I thought I’d use my contribution to the Abnormal Use blog’s celebration to explain why. 

One reason I place My Cousin Vinny under the theme of legal education is that it provides so much material you can use in the classroom.  For example, you can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses and effective trial advocacy.  Go here, here and here for more on this.

But the reference to legal education goes deeper.  I think you can use the movie to discuss the most common topic of debate within legal education itself.  Interestingly, however, in My Cousin Vinny, the issue is turned on its head.

After Vinny’s girlfriend Mona Lisa bails him out for a second time after having been found in contempt, she criticizes his performance in court and tells him it is pretty clear he does not know what he is doing.  She then utters one of my favorite lines in the movie: “Don’t they teach you that in law school?”  Vinny’s response is just as classic: “NO!  They teach you Contracts...!  Obviously, the implication is that in law school they teach "law" not "how to practice law".

There are many ironic twists to this short exchange.  First, as to those “things” that his girlfriend was referring to, we do teach you that in law school!  Vinny may not have learned them - or may have forgotten them - but we do teach them!  But, Vinny is right that there are many things you need to know to practice law effectively that we don’t teach in law school.

The reason I say the movie turns the issue on its head is that Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t.

Although Vinny is certainly no role model when it comes to knowledge of the law, legal analysis and ethical behavior, law students could learn from him as to how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.  Vinny needed to learn legal analysis, that which law schools are best equipped to teach, while many of today’s graduates need Vinny’s inherent ability to interview clients, to gather facts, to prepare a theory of a case, to negotiate, to know when to ask a question and when to remain quiet, to cross examine a witness forcefully (but with charm) in order to expose the weaknesses in their testimony and so on.

To be successful, like Vinny, all law graduates need to develop both their analytical knowledge and their practical skills.  And, also like Vinny, they need to learn to accept the fact they need help. Like Vinny, they can not do it all alone.  Were it not for his girlfriend, Vinny’s attempt to practice law would have ended in a disaster and, possibly, in disbarment.   We can all learn from that lesson too.

Thus, in the end, what My Cousin Vinny teaches us about legal education is that law schools can and should complement the focus on legal analysis with an introduction to practice skills, but also that to expect law schools to make all students ready to practice law by themselves right after graduation after only three years of studies is a bit naive.  As stressed in the final report of an ABA Task Force on legal education back in 1992, both the academic institutions and the practicing bar need to understand that they have complementary duties toward the development of skills in new graduates.

No comments: