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Daredevil and the Lawyer Who Saw Too Much

Marvel has a new television product – Daredevil, available on Netflix. And as a comic fan (I’ll admit it) I appreciate the story, the grittier street level action, and seeing a less over-exposed but still classic Marvel character brought to life on the screen. There’s also a professional hook. In addition to being a blind superhero with other enhanced senses, Matt Murdock is a criminal defence lawyer. He fights for the little guy on both fronts. Or that’s the theory, at least.

Mr. Murdock is not the lawyer who saw too much. I am. I have had too damn much of television lawyers who not only distort the reality of practice but actually invert it. They get it completely, absolutely, backwards. I know television has a way of messing up the depiction of every profession. But lawyers seem to get a special level of screwing over both generally, and in this case.

Here is an exchange from the first episode. Matt Murdock and his partner Foggy Nelson, a friend from law school, have launched their firm. They describe it as follows.

Murdock: “My partner and I are having some disagreements over the direction of Nelson and Murdock. I believe we’re here to defend the innocent.”

Nelson: “And I believe the innocent includes everyone not yet convicted of a crime. You know, as the law states.”

Murdock: “He tends to use fancy terminology.”

The joke here, of course, is that Murdock is trying to be a “good” lawyer while Nelson wants to drag their firm down into the muck by defending everyone. Except that Nelson’s understanding of the role of a defence lawyer is actually the correct one! By every accepted understanding of the job, a defence lawyer’s job is not to pronounce on-the-spot judgment on a potential client’s worth as a human being. The job is to hold the state to its obligation to either prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or pronounce innocence. It’s that simple.

Now to this point I could live with the inaccuracy. I’m used to it, after all. But in later episodes Murdock proceeds to violate attorney-client privilege at will, in order to pursue his own goals and ambitions. The goals in this case revolve around vigilante justice but that isn’t the point. Privilege is still privilege. He’s even actively worked against his clients’ interests, after taking cases only to put himself in a position to do so.

I know. It’s only television. And it’s a superhero show at that. But these shows are playing up what the public already thinks it knows about lawyers and “the system.” There are a lot of scuzzy lawyers out there. Parasites who will work for anyone, defend anyone, and who will argue that the bad guys should go free even when it’s reasonably obviously that the bad guys are, in fact, bad guys. Even if you can’t prove they committed a specific crime, they’re probably guilty of something. There are a few good lawyers, it’s true, who fight only the good fights on behalf of the good people. But they are the rare ones. They are the heroes.

This is all completely ass-backwards. And any decent lawyer knows it. The good lawyer defends anyone, yes, it’s true, just as the good doctor heals anyone. That is the ethos of the profession. When someone is facing the ultimate weight of a state prosecution, and the efforts of a government to take away his liberty and put him in prison and brand him a criminal – yes, that accused person is entitled to an advocate! Filling that role fully and properly is an honourable profession. Abandoning that role, or doing it in a half-hearted fashion, only because you personally have an opinion about what the accused deserves…that’s as perverse as a doctor refusing to treat someone only because they aren’t worthy of proper medical care.

Daredevil may be an engaging superhero. And in many ways he’s the classic example of a hero who wears the mask of an ordinary person sometimes. Daredevil is the real thing while Matt Mucdock is the act. But what I can’t understand is how he ever graduated from law school without actually learning what the law stands for. Or maybe he was just a vigilante before he ever became a lawyer, and his first allegiance has always been to vigilante justice.

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