Examining ‘The Verdict’

Legal Practitioners also enjoy legal drama as much as the general public. Whilst we have a fascination in legal dramatisation and explored the meanings and truth behind every story, on the face of such drama lawyers are reminded of even the most basic lessons on professional responsibility and ethics, to practice law to a standard far removed from actual legal practice.

Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) is, in my opinion, a masterpiece in movie making and for many years has also been used in the lecture room as case study on Professional Responsibility and Ethics, primarily due to the brazen, professional misconduct committed by the plaintiff and defendant lawyers.

(Warning, Spoilers Ahead!)

Frank Galvin, Lawyer, was previously fired from his elite firm for accusations of jury tampering, and now running a dying practice. Divorced from his wife and prone to heavy alcohol consumption, Galvin is handed a medical negligence case of a lifetime. Frank is representing a young woman, who during an operation, was administered the wrong anaesthetic and choked on her own vomit, causing brain damage which has left her in a permanent coma. All Galvin has to do is manoeuvre the parties,  into a simple out of Court settlement. But after seeing his helpless client in hospital, Galvin experiences a profound moral dilemma and sets out to find justice for his client and according to other interpretations, personal redemption for himself.

From the outset, it is clear both plaintiff and defendant lawyer’s professional responsibility and behaviour is highly questionable. Throughout the movie, various characters refer to lawyers as corrupt, money hungry vultures and surprisingly, there is no disagreement. As lawyers, we are aware of the negative opinions the general public may have on lawyers. It is extremely important to remember to build trust with our clients and handle their matters with diligence and care and then clients would be confident in providing their instructions.

It is also clear that Galvin was not adequately prepared to run this case at a hearing. The case was prepared to satisfy a quick and easy settlement. Notwithstanding the enormity of the matter, there was no diligence undertaken to ensure Galvin’s client was in the best possible position to resolve the matter at settlement or have it run in Court. This is primarily due to Galvin’s lack of morals and care in his work.

The first big breach is Galvin’s failure to convey an offer of settlement to his client’s tutors. It is our upmost duty to represent our clients and convey all offers made. We are bound by our client’s instructions, based on our advice and the trust we build in this professional relationship. This breach is a cardinal sin and in the heat of negotiation or on the run in a busy practice, offers can easily be made, accepted, rejected or withdrawn.

Another breach is when the defendant lawyer, Concannon, contact’s the plaintiff’s tutors directly and stated that Frank rejected the settlement offer without seeking their instructions, leading to a confrontation with Frank. Notwithstanding Concannon did this purposefully to foster hostility between Frank and his clients, it is easy to forget to communicate directly with legal representation, especially in matters involving large organizations or insurers who can act for  themselves at times. Always take care to check if your opposition are legally represented and ensure you have received written notice of this.

Another breach by Frank is false representation of himself to obtain details of a witness from a nurse employed by the Hospital, the primary defendant. Under no circumstances should legal practitioners should engage in fraudulent behaviour or misrepresent themselves when conducting their investigations or preparing their case. There is also a question on whether the nurse is presumed to be represented by the defendant’s legal counsel. Galvin took no steps to address this issue and communicated directly to an employee of the defendant without notice.

Another breach is Concannon’s cross examination role play with Dr Towler, the anaesthetist. This scene clearly demonstrates Concannon making suggestions and assumptions to Dr Towler, who adopts these statements as part of his testimony even though he is not sure these are actual facts. Legal Practitioners need to take absolute care in preparing witness statements as to not make suggestions or assumptions to witnesses, which they may falsely adopt as fact.

The above are just some of the examples of the professional misconduct and failure of responsibility by solicitors. In NSW. Whilst we are familiar with the existence of the Legal Professional Uniform legislation and Conduct Rules, it is easy for practitioners to forget that our livelihoods depend on that practicing certificate we hang on the wall in our office and not realise the full extent of duty and responsibility that we have.

The key operational rule we should be completely aware of is

‘A solicitor’s duty to the court and the administration of justice is paramount and prevails to the extent of inconsistency with any other duty.’ 

The Law Society of New South Wales have published a clear and effective guide titled ‘Uniform Conduct, Practice and CPD Rules for Solicitors’ and this is available for download from their website.  Some important rules for solicitor’s duties to clients include the following:

  • act in a client’s best interests
  • be honest and courteous in all dealings in the course of legal practice
  • avoid any compromise to their integrity and professional independence
  • provide clear and timely advice to assist their clients
  • follow a client’s lawful, proper and competent instructions
  • maintain client’s confidences
  • honour any undertakings given in the ordinary course of legal practice

We can all enjoy our TV shows such as Suits or Better Call Saul or other movies such as Michael Clayton orAnd Justice for All, but if you are familiar with the ending or consequences of those stories, they should serve as a solemn reminder of our professional responsibility and obligations to the Law and our client.