Elle Woods continues to reign as the legal icon of a generation. With her pink suit, impeccable work ethic, and ever-increasing grace, there is a lot for lawyers to admire within the hour and thirty-six minutes that we get to know her. However, Elle Woods isn’t perfect. In fact, if the events of the movie occurred in Texas, some of her actions could be violations of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. At the very least, Elle could be in a legal gray area – a color not in Elle’s wardrobe.
“I’d pick the dangerous one because I’m not afraid of a challenge.”
One of the most notable scenes in Legally Blonde involves Elle Woods and her friend Paulette going to Paulette’s ex-boyfriend’s house to retrieve Paulette’s beloved dog, Rufus. At the residence, Elle pretends to be a process server and Paulette’s attorney to deliver fake legal documents to the ex-boyfriend. While the scene is comedic, and the duo is ultimately successful in retrieving Rufus, Elle’s visit may have violated Rule 5.05.
According to Rule5.05:
A lawyer shall not:
(a) Practice law in a jurisdiction where doing so violates the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction; or
(b) Assist a person who is not a member of the bar in the performance of an activity that constitutes the unauthorized practice of law.
Under the Rule, Elle was clearly engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. But wait! Elle isn’t a licensed lawyer yet! Would the Rules even apply to her?
The Comments to this Rule clarify that this section is intended to “protect individuals and the public from the mistakes of the untrained…who are not subject to the judicially imposed disciplinary standards of competence, responsibility, and accountability.” In other words, the Rule protects Paulette’s ex-boyfriend not from Elle’s actions but from the actions of licensed attorneys. Because Elle was not a lawyer at the time of the “unauthorized practice”, she would likely not be subject to discipline under Rule 5.05. While a law student, Elle is likely not subject to discipline under the rules. Once she starts arguing in Court (and after Professor Callahan gets the boot), she would then be bound by the rules.
“Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands; they just don’t.”
One of the most scandalous scenes from Legally Blonde is when Elle visits her client and sorority sister, Brooke, in prison. Brooke discusses her alibi – that she was getting liposuction. Elle is shocked by this revelation and assures Brooke that her secret is safe. Brooke explicitly states she does not want the other attorneys or anyone else to know her alibi. After the meeting, the rest of Brooke’s legal team asks Elle to disclose the alibi. Elle refuses to break her client’s trust and tell the other attorneys on the team.
Elle is faced with a dilemma – she wants to help her friend and use the alibi as a defense in court, but she also wants to respect her client’s confidentiality and keep the information private. Elle ultimately decides to keep the alibi a secret, even though it could potentially help her friend’s case.
This situation addresses the critical concept of client confidentiality, a cornerstone of the legal profession. Under Rule 1.05, attorneys must maintain the confidentiality of information relating to the representation of a client. This means that an attorney can only reveal information shared by their client if they have the client’s explicit permission or if there is a legal obligation to do so. Furthermore, the rules specifically state:
“…a lawyer shall not knowingly:
- Reveal confidential information of a client or a former client to:
(i) a person that the client has instructed is not to receive the information; or
(ii) anyone else, other than the client, the client’s representatives, or the members, associates, or employees of the lawyer’s law firm.”
Brooke made it clear that Elle was not to tell anyone, including the other attorneys on the team. With clear instructions on who is not to receive the information, Brooke made it easy for Elle to use the attorney-client confidentiality rule above as a reason not to tell her team. Brooke’s instructions to not tell anyone, including those on her legal team, eliminated the possibility of Elle using 1.05(1)(ii) to circumvent the attorney-client privilege.
Elle’s decision to keep Brooke’s secret demonstrates Elle’s commitment to upholding the principles of client confidentiality, even when it may not be in her own best interest. It also shows the importance of maintaining the trust and confidentiality of the client-attorney relationship, which is vital for the proper functioning of the legal system. Who said sorority sister bonds were stronger than attorney-client privilege?
“The rules of hair care are simple and finite. Any Cosmo girl would have known.”
In this iconic scene, Elle cross-examines Chutney on the stand and repeatedly asks whether Chutney was in the shower at the time of the murder. Elle then goes on to discuss, among other things, anecdotes of her friend’s hair, including a brief story about a wet t-shirt contest. While this may seem like a humorous moment in the film, this may raise serious ethical concerns under Rule 3.04(c)(1), (4), and (5).
First, Elle’s repeated questioning may be seen as a violation of section 3.04(c)(1), which states that a lawyer should not “habitually violate an established rule of procedure or of evidence.” In a court of law, it is generally accepted that a witness should only be asked a question once unless the witness does not understand the question, or the lawyer has a valid reason for asking it again. By continually asking the same question, Elle could be seen as violating this established rule of procedure.
Furthermore, Elle’s questioning may also violate Rule 3.04(c)(4), which states that a lawyer should not “ask any question intended to degrade a witness or other person except where the lawyer reasonably believes that the quest will lead to relevant and admissible evidence.” Elle’s questioning of whether Chutney was in the shower and her numerous questions relating to Chutney’s hair appointment may be seen as an attempt to degrade the witness. It could be seen as a form of bullying or intimidation. It is not clear from the onset of the scene if Elle has a valid reason for asking the question and whether it is relevant to the case.
Finally, Elle’s repeated questioning and her story about a sorority sister may also violate Rule 3.04(c)(5), which states that a lawyer should not “engage in conduct intended to disrupt the proceedings.” Elle’s behavior could be seen as an attempt to disrupt the proceedings, as she is not following the established rules of procedure and is not providing a valid reason for her questioning. I think every lawyer can agree that Elle was given a long leash when making her point during Chutney’s questioning.
While Elle ultimately shows the importance of her repeated questions about the shower, Chutney’s hair, and the wet t-shirt contest anecdote, there were times when Elle may have violated procedure or failed to treat the witness and the court with respect. Nonetheless, this is one of the most iconic “gotcha” moments in cinematic history, all because of the principles of ammonium thioglycolate.
While the rules of hair care are simple and finite, rules and ethical considerations while practicing law aren’t always so straightforward.
Cali Franks is a Program Attorney at Lawline and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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