When The Movies Get It Right: Spotlight Explains Why Lawyers Sometimes Have To Represent Bad Men

[Note: light spoilers for Spotlight within. Read at your own risk.]

I believe that every great film has at least one scene where its entire thesis is laid bare before the audience. In Spotlight, the riveting story of how a team of Boston Globe journalists uncovered the Catholic church’s child sex abuse cover-up, that scene occurs roughly two thirds into the film. Journalist Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is told by editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) that the team’s work isn’t ready to be published, despite having uncovered dozens of acts of sexual abuse by Boston-area priests. Robinson and his superiors don’t just want to publish stories of child abuse; they want to go after the whole system that kept pedophile priests in circulation and out of jail. The other journalists (Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James) are crushed, but understanding. Rezendes isn’t though and has a major breakdown.

“It could’ve been me!” he howls, in what is likely to be Ruffalo’s Oscar clip. “It could’ve been you! It could’ve been any of us!” 

This is a major theme running through Spotlight, the idea of doing your job versus doing what’s right. To Rezendes, getting the story out there quickly is the right thing to do. Not just because it’s so personal, but because they had asked so much of the victims, coming forward against their own self-interest to report on decades-old trauma. But Robinson knows that if they report on the story before it’s ready, it’ll just get swept under the rug. Their job, he believes, is to affect change, and that means waiting until they have enough evidence to prove the church hid these horrible acts. This theme crops up in another substantial plot point too.

Throughout the film, Robinson leans on an old school friend, Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) to divulge information he has on the church’s cover-up. Sullivan was an attorney who defended priests accused of child molestation on behalf of the Boston Archdiocese. Sullivan claims that he can’t reveal anything as it would be a breach of attorney-client confidentiality. Eventually, Robinson convinces Sullivan to cough up what he knows, attorney privilege be damned - you know, do the right thing. And what Sullivan reveals is astonishing… he defended over 70 priests and kept them out of court by settling with the victims for paltry sums.

The film takes great pains at regular intervals to highlight (spotlight?) this particular conundrum faced by lawyers. How do you defend men you know are bad and still do your job? After all, professional conduct rules in Massachusetts require attorneys to represent their clients diligently and “zealously within the bounds of the law.”

They also demand that attorneys “not reveal confidential information relating to representation of a client unless the client consents after consultation, except for disclosures that are impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation.” Confidentiality can only be breached in certain cases, such as to prevent an act that is reasonably likely to result in death or serious bodily harm, when ordered to by a court, or in situations where the client used the attorney’s services to commit wrongdoing. It’s safe to say that Sullivan is putting his career (and possibly his legal license) on the line by becoming a source for the Spotlight team. 

Nowhere in the rules does it say that you can breach confidentiality because you have a moral objection to your client’s alleged acts. The best you can do is refuse to accept the case at the outset, or withdraw from representation later on. But even that can be highly difficult to accomplish. Maybe your firm represents the client and you have no choice about what cases you’re assigned. Maybe you’re in the midst of trial, settlement talks, or arbitration and a judge won’t let you withdraw because it would do greater harm to your client. You may not have a choice in the matter.

But let’s put aside the issue of choice for the moment. The Constitution grants all men and women - even the evil and guilty ones - the right to have a lawyer defend them. It’s enshrined in the Fifth Amendment and takes a central place in this country’s jurisprudence. It’s tempting to think that if you represent bad men, you must be a bad man too, but I know many good and moral lawyers who defend bad people because they believe that everyone, regardless of what they’ve done, deserves to have a fair hearing.

The film understands this conundrum and plays with it. It’s not afraid of having conversations that don’t have answers. In real life, these issues are rarely one-sided anyway. At one point, a certain attorney character is painted in a villainous light… right up until it’s revealed that he decided to breach attorney-client confidentiality to do right by the victims. For his part, Sullivan is shown struggling with the request Robinson has made of him. 

There’s a scene late in the film where the entire team is sitting with editors Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) discussing the imminent release of the article. They argue over whether Sullivan should’ve done the right thing - i.e. not defending child molesting priests - or if just doing his job was okay. Some argue the former and are inclined to vilify him for it. It’s a perfect microcosm of the overall theme of the film. What may be the right thing for one group of stakeholders may not be right for others. Sometimes doing your job may be the right thing, and other times it may not be. Baron argues that when you’re in the middle of a thing, it’s not always easy to know what’s happening, let alone what’s right. If you shine a spotlight on yourself, you might find a little dirt too.

I love films that tackle complex moral questions and don’t resolve them with easy platitudes. Spotlight is a masterpiece for a variety of reasons, but that’s the one I’m choosing.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA