Film Friday: Your Cousin Vinny Should Have Been Disbarred

Good morning you lousy shitstains on the ass of humanity known as lawyers. So, we’ve had a bit of a wild ride over the past month or so, starting with furries, moving to master/slave sexual fetishes, and now heading into the critique of films in general with the very first Film Friday, a series that will take a look at how the law and lawyers are being portrayed in popular media of all sorts.

What’s that? Why don’t I use a name other than “Film Friday” if I’m talking about all other forms of media in addition to this one? Well, because fuck you. My blog, my rules, and I’m an advocate of illustrative alliteration when it comes to these things.

So, today we’re going to talk about My Cousin Vinny, a film that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and has been wildly praised and loved for its accuracy in presenting how to conduct a trial, an effective cross-examination, general courtroom procedure, etc. I mean, attorneys fucking love this goddamn movie. I love it. I own it on VHS, DVD, BluRay, and recently purchased it on Vudu just so I could stream scenes from it if I ever find myself, say, in an airport on the way to a motherfucking furry convention somewhere and, flying United, need something to watch as I’m savagely beaten and dragged from the plane.

Of course, the unspoken part of the appeal is we love the foul-mouthed troll/hobbit hybrid that is early 90’s Joe Pesci, and the fact that he was apparently able to land Marisa Tomei. It almost broke the suspension of disbelief for me.

So, we know that lawyers love the fuck out of this film. We know that it involves scenes that accurately depict the rules of evidence, qualifications of experts, criminal procedure (“He just gave me all this stuff!” Vinny exclaims when the prosecutor makes his standard and procedurally required disclosures), and blistering cross-examination (“ARE YOU SURE ABOUT THOSE FIVE MINUTES?”). Which means, of course, I shouldn’t do what I’m about to do.

Because I’m about to argue that Vinny is unethical, improper, and should never be allowed to practice law again.

First, if you haven’t watched the film, go watch the film. But if you won’t, here’s a blurb for you:

Bill Gambini and Stanley Rothenstein are two friends from New York University who just received scholarships to UCLA. They decide to drive through the South. Once they arrive in Alabama, they stop at a local convenience store to pick up a few snacks. But, no sooner than they leave the store, they are arrested. They had thought that they were arrested for shoplifting, but they were arrested for murder and robbery. Worse, they are facing execution for this crime. Bill and Stan do not have enough money for a lawyer, so the good news is that Bill has a lawyer in his family, his cousin, Vincent Laguardia Gambini. The bad news is that Vinny is an inexperienced lawyer who has not been at a trial. So, Vinny has to defend his clients and battle an uncompromising judge, some tough locals, and even his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito, who just does not know when to shut up, to prove his clients’ innocence. But he will soon realize that he is going to need help.

Let me go with the standard disclaimer: I understand this is fucking Hollywood. So I’m not going to bring up the fact that the movie runs from murder to trial in what appears to be a fucking week, despite the fact that’s absolutely not how fast any trial, especially a murder trial, runs. You’re looking at a year, minimum, before a case like this gets in front of a judge and jury in most places. That’s not the important part.

The important part is that Vincent Laguardia Gambini is a New York Lawyer arguing in an Alabama court. This isn’t how shit works. Being a lawyer doesn’t allow you to travel the country, popping in an out of states at will to try a case. Our licenses are state-specific, and admission in one state does not authorize you to practice law in another. In fact, doing so is a reason for an attorney to be charged with the unauthorized practice of law and the loss of their law license.

There is a process by which a lawyer from one jurisdiction can pop into another one for a matter. It’s called “admission pro hac vice” and literally means “for this occasion only.” It’s a limited form of admission that allows an attorney, who does not hold a law license in the jurisdiction the case will be tried in, to be admitted to practice in that state for the sole purpose of that one single case. However, unlike Vinny, it doesn’t just require that an attorney appear in front of a judge and request they be allowed to handle the matter.

No, there’s a whole procedure behind it. For Alabama, the state that My Cousin Vinny takes place in, there is a whole process to follow. It requires hiring a local counsel to second-chair the matter and present your application to the Court, which will then make a determination on whether or not you’ll be allowed to swing your big lawyer dick around their local courtroom for this case. There’s a form for it an everything. Also, that local counsel has to stay with you for the whole trial because, you know, they’re the ones familiar with the court and the procedure, not to mention the fucking law, in the state where the matter is being heard.

Vinny did not have local counsel, and I must have missed the scene where he presented the proper application to the court to have his pro hac vice status approved. Sure, there’s that milquetoast public defender in the courtroom at one point, but he was never “local counsel” for Vinny.

Why is this important? Oh, well, shit…remember in the movie, how Vinny kept violating all these procedures specific to Alabama and the sensibilities of the judge? It got played up for laughs, but…this is the exact fucking reason pro hac vice counsel is required to hire local counsel who knows this shit. A procedural misstep can result in your client fucking going to jail or losing a shit ton of moneyAlso, you know, Vinny was technically practicing law in Alabama without having a law license in Alabama and without any justification, so the movie was a non-starter right off the bat.

But I get it. This would have been a short movie:

Int. Local Counsel’s Office

VINNY: I’m going to wear a leather suit.

LOCAL COUNSEL: The fuck you are. Go to the Sears. Here’s $100.

But let’s get past the pro hac vice moment. Let’s assume Alabama became the only state that allowed lawyers from other jurisdictions to practice there willy-nilly.

That still doesn’t get us past the fact that Vinny, throughout the movie, is setting himself up for eventual disbarment by lying directly to the fucking court.

There’s a whole subplot to the movie where the judge, like any responsible judge, is making sure the counsel that is about to try a fucking death penalty case is competent to handle it. This is not an uncommon procedure, and some states, like mine, actually require you to have a certain qualification before you even think about handling a capital case because of the severity of the punishment. Remember, though, Vinny is a baby lawyer, a freshly barred attorney with no trial or courtroom experience, who has gone from hustling personal injury settlements to taking on a murder case in no time flat. He makes missteps, and doesn’t understand the rules of criminal procedure in New York, let alone Ala-Fucking-Bama (Roll Tide). He should have never been in this matter to being with.

One of the very first rules of Professional Conduct requires an attorney to provide competent representation for the matter that is before them, meaning they have or, in a reasonable time can obtain, the knowledge and skill necessary to diligently and competently advocate for their client. The determination is made by the attorney, and normally after doing some soul-searching and thinking about the matter and whether its one they know or can know well enough to handle. Vinny doesn’t do this. Vinny jumps straight the fuck into the deep end of the pool, and does so with aplomb. I respect that in a personal sense, but the professional in me screams “Refer it out you dumb shit!”

Vinny, in an attempt to avoid having his competence questioned, tells the judge a series of names of attorneys in New York, insisting that’s who he really is for one reason or another. One of these lawyers is dead. The other one, he isn’t even sure if the lawyer exists. Because this was pre-internet, though, the judge can’t just call bullshit after a Google search. He has to send off for information from New York. Thus Vinny must prove his clients to be innocent on a short timeframe, and shenanigans ensue!

And Vinny violated another one of the rules. Lawyers also have a duty of candor to the tribunal. Essentially, we can’t lie to the court, and especially can’t lie to the court regarding a material fact. Vinny does both in pursuit of getting his name attached to this case. Keep in mind, at some point this will come to light. Maybe “Jerry Callo,” the eventual name that he used, gets a phone call from the judge at some point or the prosecutor. Then Jerry Callo, who the film presents as a real lawyer that Vinny was unaware of, says “I didn’t try any murder case in Alabama, what the fuck is going on here?”

Suddenly, people are wondering who the short guy named Vinny really was and it turns out…New York does have a record of an attorney named Vincent Laguardia Gambini.

He’s a personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn.

And he’s about to get his ass disbarred for practicing law without a license in Alabama, undertaking a fucking murder trial without the requisite competence to do so, and directly fucking lying to the judge.

Alright, that does it for me. The movie is great, and its depiction of the rules of evidence, cross-examination, and procedural aspects of trial are really fucking good. But it’s not entirely accurate.

And this is why you don’t watch movies with a lawyer.

-BB