Is Arthur Kirkland a good layer?

The TRUTH? You can’t handle it!

Disclaimer: The movie was released in 1979 when the laws and codes varied from the current standing. This analysis would judge Arthur Kirkland’s case with code both pre and post 2000s.

The question frequently occurs; whether you should have saved the rapist or not, whether to provide terrorists with advocates and whether to breach the client-attorney confidentiality for the sake of HUMANITY! Over the years these unresolved questions have lead to the debate of ‘good lawyer’ or ‘bad lawyer’ with the public being the judge. No one though looks the profession separate from the person. 

“And justice for all” was familiarised in my first year and was the final assessment of my five-year law school trip. My understanding en-route is best depicted by Morris Salem’s quote from ‘Reflection of a lawyer’, “Most of the dishonest lawyers are the product of dishonest clients-the demand creates the supply.” This movie is a representation of something comparable.

The movie was directed by Norman Jewison, released in 1979. Arthur Kirkland (starring Al Pacino) is the protagonist, where he played the role of a defence attorney and was forced to defend a guilty client (a judge in the same court) amidst him defending several other innocent clients, where he struggles to bestow punishment to guilty and justice to the innocent. At its core, the movie shows the human-side of a lawyer and how the proceedings affect the lawyers.

Let’s start by defining the term “professionalism.” Although there is no universal definition, the most basic idea is “being true to your professional responsibilities.” However, unlike other professionals, a lawyer is obligated towards the public as a whole (to facilitate ‘justice for everyone,’) and owes professional duty to the client. In the film at hand, similar challenges of a lawyer’s life are depicted.

Attorney-Client Relationship v. Attorney-Society Relationship 

Lawyers are obligated by attorney-client confidentiality, which exposes them to liability in the event of a breach. Arthur Kirkland has been identified twice violating same. Judge Fleming blackmails him over same, to take up his case. Kirkland informed the police about his former client’s grotesque fantasies of bursting crackers in people’s mouths, when he read about similar murders in the news. Due to a breach of attorney-client confidence, this incident is likely to result in his disbarment.

Rhode says, “Lawyers should assume responsibility for the welfare of the parties other than clients”.Arthur Kirkland was justified in defying his client, as he should hold accountability to third – party being ‘the people’. He would not be accountable in the 21st century because Rule 3.3 of the 2002 reforms, issued by the American Bar Association, prevents attorneys from producing false evidence and provides remedies in the event that any falsity comes to the lawyer’s awareness. Attorneys can break confidentiality in case of death or bodily injury, even if no criminal behaviour stands involved, and can act to prevent frauds or reasonable threats from a client’s misconduct.  

Despite such remedies, few individuals obey them with free will, notably illustrated in another Al Pacino film, Devil’s Advocate,’lust of winning’ is supplementary to a law degree and free choice. Thus, as evaluated through the lens of the 21st century, Kirkland was well within his professional ethics (which concerned era lacked).

The question posed so far is who is the third party. The legal profession is dealing with a degraded public image, criticism from colleagues and unsatisfied clients. Our professional ethics require virtuous and morally aligned lawyers, even whilst playing devil’s advocate, which generates dissatisfaction since all clients want to win. In my understanding, we must represent our client to the best of our abilities while remaining within legal and moral confines.

Thus an ethical lawyer is a virtuous one. Socrates says;

excellence (virtue) would not be natural, nor could it be taught, rather it would come to those who receive it, as a divine portion, without reason, unless there were, among our statesmen, someone capable of turning another person into a statesman.

Aristotle has similar approach to virtue, in furtherance he concludes, “our personal and professional selves are not morally autonomous entities”. This ‘human side’ of the profession is what Kirkland highlights while saying, “everyday defence attorneys are protecting someone guilty and are not supposed to be affected.”. Kirkland was affected by his client going to jail because the evidence was 3 days late, or pacifying his client when hostile, or his personal emergencies leading to incompetent representation by fill-in, or tending to his client post mid-night, right after being released from jail. He was a moral lawyer who acted honestly throughout, far above the inclinations of his peers.

In case of Judge Fleming, he first got Kirkland appointed for political benefits despite him refusing to further indulge in fake evidences and eye witness which was definite enough to acquit judge, hence party to epitome miscarriage of justice. Since the beginning Kirkland felt morally responsible for the third party and rightful carriage of justice and thus it’s safe to conclude that Kirkland upholds the wholistic approach of professional ethics. 

My client should go to jail and is guilty

The professionalism also requires to represent our client wit best of our ability and though created for cinematic grandeur, the last scene was out of order. Kirkland’s dialogue (the most famous dialogue) was intended to demonstrate the incapacity of the prosecution to present their case. The preamble of ABA Model Rules reads that when the opposing party is well prepared the lawyer shall presume that justice is being done. This is to mean that Kirkland was well within his professional limits to halt the trial owing to prosecution’s incompetence. 

Arthur Kirkland is globally criticised of acting way outside his professional limits in the concluding courtroom outrage, however no one comments on how the legal professionals are trying to shed their responsibility and liability (that the movie wants to highlight) to uphold the said ‘justice for all’.

Rhodes suggests that this accountability towards public needs to increase, where ethical standards shall be formulated in light of social interests, thus balancing the importance between confidentiality and morality. It is a responsibility of the attorney to consider the rights of non-clients and act with honesty; fairness; and good faith, if desire to promote a just and effective legal system, exactly what Kirkland’s action could lead to. 

I discovered the meaning of LIFE…. It sucks Arthur, it sucks

Kirkland: Being a lawyer doesn’t have much to do with being a lawyer, grandpa.

Grandfather: If you are not honest, you are nothing. 

Being a good lawyer is to override the illegal interests of your client, and abstain from facilitating achieving those goals. Courts do not deal with idealised models with equal wealth, power, representation and access to information, where matters must reach neutral decision makers.

An attorney should have the liberty to pursue what they believe to be correct, within the bounds of legality. Ethics and law intersects, howbeit they are not same. Alice Woolley is of the opinion that the impositions on lawyers must account for societal perspective, with balanced intersection between abstract principles and their applicability; and lawyer’s actions should be bound by legality provided the legal system is a moral one. 

Gandhi suggested, “Rather than being a zealous attorney, one should be a dedicated seeker of truth and unity for clients and their communities who considers the moral and ethical consequences of legal decisions affecting the client’s long term interests. There shall exist vigilant professional supervision to avoid unethical conduct.” 

Arthur Kirkland did misrepresent his client and that would lead to mistrial and would serve no good purpose, however, he had to resort to adverse steps because of lack of equity, the power held by judge to manipulate the trail and the helplessness of Kirkland to be a party to such miscarriage of justice made him act in the manner. Besides he was a good lawyer who represented his innocent clients with best of his ability, with an aligned moral compass hence incorporating the true essence of professional ethics, which are more than mere definition of professionalism. 

It is to simply conclude that lawyers are HUMANS in the end of the day are not bound by their professional limits in personal life. They are affected by all the choices they make to display ‘professionalism’ and are fairly different than the stereotypical ideology of an advocate this society holds. 


  1. Alice Woolley, ‘If Philosophical Legal Ethics is the Answer, What is the Question’, (2010), The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 983 – 1001
  2. Deborah L. Rhode, ‘Legal Ethics in an Adversary System: The Persistent Questions’, (2006), Hofstra Law Review, Vol. 34, pp. 641 – 671 <> accessed 25 April 2022
  3. Lorie M. Graham, ‘Aristotle’s Ethics & Virtuous Lawyer’, (1996) 20 J. Legal Prof. 5 <> accessed on 25 April 2022
  4. Plato’s Meno, translated by J. Holbo and B. Waring < > accessed on 25 April 2022 
  5. Paul Lannon, ‘A Lawyer In Pursuit Of Truth and Unity: Mohandas Gandhi and the Private Practice of Law’, (2011) 44 Suffolk U. L. Rev. 665.
  6. Rhode D, ‘Legal Ethics in an Adversary System: The Persistent Questions’ (2006) Vol. 34 pp. 641 – 671 Hofstra Law Review, <> accessed 25 April 2022

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