The context may differ, but the joke is always the same: there are too many lawyers, and what are they good for, anyway? After all, lawyers are nothing more than ambulance chasers and sharks and defenders of multi-billion-dollar corporations…right?
Well, maybe there’s more to lawyering than that. For eons, humans have told stories to create and maintain a shared sense of identity, as well as to pass on wisdom and warnings from generation to generation. The parallel motifs and morals running through folktales told the world over remind us that we all have the human condition in common. Yet we often fail to learn the lessons our forbears have passed down. And one of the most overlooked is also one of the most important: get legal counsel.
One of the easiest places to start is with Disney. These saccharine stories, based off of (mostly European) folk tales and children’s lore, have the potential to teach small, impressionable humans around the world that they can prevent entirely avoidable disasters by just asking a lawyer. Let us begin with the Little Mermaid.
Sure, Ariel is only sixteen years old, and she’s crushing hard on Prince Eric. But signing Ursula’s contract was truly a terrible idea. First, even a 1L could have told her that you never sign a contract if you don’t know what it says. Ursula clearly had malevolent motives. No mer-person in their right mind would agree to those terms having actually read them.
Second, Ariel might not have understood the contract even if she had read it. A sixteen-year old mermaid with no drafting experience is no match for the guiles of a sea-witch with years of entrapment experience. Ariel should have had a lawyer go over that parchment with a fine-toothed mer-comb before so much as picking up that quill.
Of course, her contract may have been unenforceable: it was drafted exclusively by one party, and coercion indisputably played a role in Ariel’s acceptance. Some of the individual provisions were probably unenforceable, too. But minutiae aside, any lawyer could have told Ariel that, even knowing what it held, signing this contract was a terrible idea.
Perhaps Ariel is an outlier, you say – perhaps other Disney heroines are shrewder? I present to you Exhibit B, Walt’s very first princess, Snow White.
First and foremost, the poor, naïve girl should have applied for a restraining order as soon as she found out the Queen wanted her dead. Moreover, the poisoned apple situation could make for a fascinating product liability case. Can the manufacturers and suppliers of the materials used to brew the poison be held liable for the harm Snow White suffered? Certainly there is an argument to be made against the publisher of a spell-book that provides a recipe for poison – it could be reasonably foreseeable that the Queen would use such a book for nefarious purposes.
But not all fairy tale characters’ legal quandaries are so simple. Shrek, for instance, finds his quiet, solitary life interrupted by a crowd of displaced magical creatures decamped in his yard. Lord Farquaad, the local petty tyrant, had them rounded up, evicted from their own homes, for no apparent reason other than a personal dislike of magical creatures. Shrek marches into Farquaad’s castle to confront him, but instead of standing up for his right to the quiet enjoyment of his property, he agrees to embark on a crazy quest. Had Shrek asked for an attorney’s opinion on how best to get his home back, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble.
Shrek could have built a strong case against Farquaad on several counts. Firstly, Farquaad’s actions were likely a breach of Shrek’s implied covenant of quiet enjoyment. Farquaad’s actions substantially interfered with Shrek’s beneficial enjoyment and use of the land, and Shrek vacated and gave notice as soon as it happened. It can hardly be disputed that Farquaad’s order is the cause-in-fact of Shrek’s constructive eviction, and it’s not a stretch to posit that it was also the proximate cause.
Moreover, Shrek – if he counts as a magical creature – could have brought a suit against Farquaad on behalf of his fellow displaced creatures, for discrimination based on race (or species, depending on how to categorize them). Not only was there a blatant lack of due process in all of these evictions, Farquaad didn’t even pretend to have a compelling government reason for rounding up and evicting all the little gnomes, fairies, and cute talking animals who became refugees in Shrek’s swamp. If he were called to the stand, a cross examination would almost certainly convince a jury that his policy was targeted toward a particular group, was based in animus, and caused a heck of a lot of harm.
Personal errors of judgment aside, children’s stories present an even louder call to action when it comes to major safety violations. For instance, during Albus Dumbledore’s time as Headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the school was a veritable cesspool of safety violations. Dumbledore seemed to have no qualms about hiring completely unqualified people as instructors (see Lockhart, Trelawney, and Firenze, to name a few). Moreover, Dumbledore upheld few, if any, standards of conduct for his staff. Children as young as eleven years old were exposed to – and harmed by – mountain trolls, mandrakes, dragons, dementors, acromantulas, and even a basilisk. It is utterly baffling that Dumbledore was never hit with a class-action lawsuit for reckless endangerment by righteously indignant parents. The damages alone would probably have amounted to millions of galleons, not to mention the injunctions and the consequences of overhauling the oversight systems for the school. There are also certainly claims for negligent – and even intentional – infliction of emotional distress.
These stories make up just the tip of the iceberg. Children’s literature through the ages has done a remarkably poor job of preparing younger generations to face real life. We must take up the important work of providing better examples for our progeny. While Elle Woods and Vinny Gambini are a good start, they might be somewhat out of their element in Hogwarts, Far Far Away, or Triton’s undersea castle. We’re putting out the call: what problem stories do you know, where someone really should have called a lawyer? Tweet us @columbiajla.