One of the themes is how Vinny handles an ornery, provincial judge in an unfriendly environment--a fate that many attorneys face.
My favorite scene: Vinny's opening jury remarks after the silver-tongued local prosecutor delivers a lengthy, impassioned opening. The judge reminds him it's his turn, and Vinny stands before the jurors and simply remarks, "Everything that guy just said is b-------."
I teach aspiring trial lawyers, and I often use Vinny's remarks and his defense of the "two youts" (to use his Brooklynese) as a textbook example of how to open your defense by getting right to the point of your case.
I actually saw My Cousin Vinny on a flight to Alabama on my way to try one of many cases for a national weight-loss company facing hundreds of lawsuits accusing it of causing gallbladder disease. I, too, found myself before a hostile Alabama judge in a hostile Alabama courtroom--hostile only in the sense that I was a Northerner in a Deep South with very different customs.
Less than an hour into trial, I made my first objection and, following Northern customs, stated all my reasons for objecting to the opposing counsel's question. The judge put one hairy-knuckled hand over his microphone and motioned me to approach him. In a stage whisper audible to the entire courtroom, he said, "Son, I get the feeling you're peeing on my leg and telling me it's raining."
Not familiar with this homegrown witticism, I replied, "Excuse me, Your Honor?" He said, "I don't need all those reasons, just say, 'I object.' "
The case settled, like most cases, halfway through trial, but not before I was exposed to more unfamiliar treatment. At the time, this Alabama city had a reputation as a "judicial hellhole" for defendants--notorious for large plaintiffs' awards and rough treatment of defense attorneys.
The American Tort Reform Association annually ranks such problematic jurisdictions. 2007's list, top to bottom, includes: South Florida; Rio Grande and Gulf Coast, Texas; Cook County, Ill.; West Virginia; Clark County, Nevada; and Atlantic County, N.J.
I have tried cases in several of these places, though not recently, and recall no harsh treatment. But reputations of various locales come and go. No doubt, the notoriety of being labeled a "judicial hellhole" has helped to bring some reform.
The reality is there will always be variety in how courts in different regions treat lawyers and litigants. I wouldn't change this local flavor, as long as there is fair and even-handed treatment under the law. After all, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson told us.
While variety results in a certain number of"judicial hellholes," there are ways to avoid these places or, if that is not possible, at least minimize their damage. When disputes arise, filing first in a "safe" jurisdiction, using contractual provisions providing for specific "safe" jurisdictions in the event of litigation, and retaining prominent local counsel with courthouse "ties" are just a few.
Fortunately, resorting to these devices will be increasingly rare, as the number and intensity of these hellholes continues to diminish over time. Hopefully, Vinny and his clients--the "two youts"--will never end up in a judicial hellhole again.
PHILIP G. KIRCHER is co-chairman of the commercial litigation department at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor.
February 14, 2008
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