Event Kicks off Law School Centennial Celebration
SPOKANE, Wash – Attorney and author Scott Turow, who has penned nine best-seller fiction titles and is considered by some the father of the modern legal thriller, delighted a Gonzaga University School of Law audience recently with his lecture exploring some of the popular cultural images of American attorneys.
Lawyers occupy a special niche in American culture and have become among the most popular subjects of dramatic depictions in movies, books, and television programs. For the past several years, however, Gallup Polls measuring trustworthiness of various professions indicate lawyers are not widely trusted. In a speech that drew laughter, applause, and thoughtful reactions from the audience, Turow explored this cultural dichotomy and offered possible reasons. His lecture titled “Where Are You Perry Mason?” was itself a nod to yesteryear’s cultural depiction of attorneys in the Emmy Award-winning TV series “Perry Mason” (1957-66).
Turow’s evening lecture Sept. 20 officially launched the Law School’s Centennial Celebration; the event also is part of the University’s yearlong 125th Anniversary Celebration. Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh and Law School Dean Jane Korn introduced Turow, noting the event offered the opportunity to reflect on the tradition of Gonzaga Law School and the ways in which the school has been transformational for legal education and social justice.
Turow also addressed tradition and transformation – themes for Gonzaga’s anniversary celebrations – throughout his presentation, noting the legal profession and has long been the subject for stories and other social narratives, starting with the trial of Socrates, through “Perry Mason” dramas, and in the classic 1960 Harper Lee novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which became a 1962 movie by the same title and won three Academy Awards. In the movie, Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of small-town attorney Atticus Finch.
“He was a widower, raising two children, a principled lawyer, and even the best shot in town,” Turow said. “Atticus Finch was truly Mr. Everything.”
In the 1980s, the popular image of attorneys began to change in American culture to become what Turow characterized as the “Madonna Complex,” laying the groundwork for what has become a profound interest and yet ambivalence about the profession.
Turow suggested this intense attraction and dislike of the legal profession developed in three ways, led by a sharp increase in the level of technical detail provided in legal storytelling. The modern audience is incredibly sophisticated in “legal nuts and bolts,” Turow said. When writing “Presumed Innocent,” his first novel, Turow explained to readers some of the law’s nuances, such as a courtroom sidebar – something no writer in the legal thriller genre would feel is necessary nowadays, given widespread understanding.
“People learn through storytelling,” Turow said, “and popular culture is full of stories of the law.”
The second major factor contributing to the changed cultural perspective of American attorneys has been the rising popularity of the fictional concept of a flawed hero. No longer were lawyers portrayed as Perry Mason and Atticus Finch; instead, Turow said, they have been characterized more frequently as complex and multifaceted individuals “making a robust selection from the menu of deadly sins.”
Finally, Turow identified money as the top reason most people distrust attorneys. Lawyers’ earnings have far outpaced inflation, provoking suspicion and ambivalence. He traces this attitudinal change to the high-profile Watergate scandal when the nation’s top attorneys were caught in criminal activity. The new economic worldview that took hold in America soon afterward replaced a “community” focus for the law with greater personal self-interest.
Turow ended his presentation on a hopeful note regarding the cultural depiction of attorneys. Despite current attitudes, he said people often see the “positive potential of the courthouse” as the “central forge of values” and the only recognized authority to sort out the multiple ethical dilemmas rising from a pluralistic nation.
There remains strong faith in the courthouse, the institution of law in America, and the people who work in it, he said.
“I think the faith is not misplaced, and I hope over time it does not become one more legal fiction,” Turow concluded, drawing a standing ovation.
Andrea Parrish is a digital media specialist for the Gonzaga University School of Law.