The Lincoln Lawyer And The Law

By Jacob Krueger

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Here’s a great question I recently received from a student


I’m working on a [comedy] script right now about [premise deleted]… and I’m doing a little bit of research on the laws surrounding International Marriage Brokers and Immigration. What’s your opinion on how to handle the laws, and how strictly to adhere to them?  I’m thinking of movies like The Proposal, What Happens in Vegas, and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry as examples… I’m guessing the accuracy in the way they address the laws is less than 100%?  — Josh B.


Unless you’re writing for lawyers, what matters most when it comes to laws in a movie is not what the actual law is, but what the audience believes the law is. In the real world, all kinds of unbelievable laws exist, and all kinds of laws that everyone believes exist actually don’t exist at all.

But for audiences, the only laws that exist are the ones they believe.

That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the notions your audience enters believing.  And similarly it doesn’t mean that you are held to the strict reality of those laws as they exist in the universe. What’s more important is that you set up the rules and the laws of your character’s world clearly, and then force your character to play by those rules.

Does this mean you should just ignore the laws of the real world?

Absolutely not.  Often there’s more fun to be had by exploring the truth than simply making up a law that’s convenient for your script.  But that doesn’t change the fact that your audience isn’t coming to learn about the finer points of legal theory.  They’re coming to watch a movie. Dramatically, the law only matters in relation to the pressure it’s putting on your main character– so as with most things in a movie, if it makes your character’s life harder, most likely your audience will accept it.  And if it makes your character’s life easier, most likely they will start to doubt it, whether it is true or not.

As a writer, your job is to sell the audience on the laws of your script

People always talk about “willing suspension of disbelief” when people watch movies.  But I don’t think that’s what happens at all.  I think that subconsciously people come to identify with your main character.  And when he or she reacts believably to the “realities” of their world, the audiences comes to believe in those realities as well. For laws that audiences generally are aware of and believe in, “you have the right to remain silent” for example, that’s a pretty easy job.

The law is already active in your audience’s consciousness, so even if your version is missing some of the finer nuances, as long as you gently remind them, in a dramatic way, that the law exists and that your character has to deal with it, most likely your audience will happily accept it easily as the reality of the script, even if your interpretation of that law glosses over some of the details.

The Lincoln Lawyer and the Law

For example John Romano’s script, The Lincoln Lawyer, does this with Attorney-Client privilege– the idea that a lawyer cannot under any circumstances, disclose anything a client has said to him in confidence, and that even if he did, such evidence would automatically be inadmissible in court. Now I don’t know for sure whether Attorney-Client privilege extends to cases where the client is (spoiler alert:) killing the lawyer’s friends and threatening the lawyer’s kids, and attempting to frame the lawyer for murder. I’m no lawyer, but I’d guess that in the real world, there’s a loophole for that.

But the important thing is, within the world of The Lincoln Lawyer, there is no loophole.  And we can experience that viscerally, because of the way the “law” of Attorney-Client privilege is established dramatically early in the script, and the way the main character is forced to grapple of not being able to simply say the truth throughout the story. There may be a couple of lawyers in the audience hemming and hawing.  But for the majority of the audience, that law becomes the law, and they get to enjoy the movie by accepting its rules.

What Are The Rules Of Your Script?

Want to know more about how to set up the rules of your script so that audiences will believe them? Over the next week, I’ll be exploring the way rules are established in three great scripts of completely different genres:  Win Win, Away From Her and Superbad.

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