The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

The PLEA: Learning about Law with The Simpsons

Lionel Hutz and the Legal Profession

I’ve argued in front of every judge in this state – often as a lawyer.

No analysis of The Simpsons and the law would be complete without considering the series’ best-known lawyer, Lionel Hutz. Voiced by the late Phil Hartman, Lionel Hutz first appeared in the second season.

According to The Simpsons Archive, Lionel Hutz is named after real-life lawyer Sir Lionel Luckhoo, Q.C. A lawyer from Guyana, Luckhoo holds the Guiness Book of World Records title of “Most Successful Lawyer,” with 245 consecutive successful defences in murder cases between 1940 and 1985.

Conversely, Lionel Hutz is anything but successful. He lives at the YMCA and his law office was once located in a phone booth. These Hutz quotes indicate the depth of his incompetence:

  • Mr. Simpson, don’t you worry. I watched Matlock in a bar last night. The sound wasn’t on, but I think I got the gist of it.
  • Ugh. If I hear “objection” and “sustained” one more time today I think I am going to scream.
  • Mr. Simpson, the state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement. But just between you and me, I promise you a big cash settlement.
  • Lionel Hutz, court-appointed attorney. I’ll be defending you on the charge of... Murder One! Wow! Even if I lose, I’ll be famous!
  • Uh-oh. We’ve drawn Judge Snyder. He’s kind of had it in for me since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace “accidentally” with “repeatedly,” and replace “dog” with “son.”

Lionel Hutz and the Commercialization of Law

In the February 2003 issue of Bench and Bar of Minnesota, Minneapolis-based lawyer Larry M. Wertheim wrote that Lionel Hutz represents the “ultimate ‘consumerization’ of law.” Wertheim pointed to several satirical instances that would indicate this:

  • Hutz’s offices operate in the Springfield Mall under the name “I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm.”
    Locating Hutz’s law firm in a shopping mall and basing its name off of a margarine called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” suggests that accessing legal services is similar to purchasing groceries.
  • When Homer was seeking legal services, Lionel Hutz told Homer that “You’ll be getting more than just a lawyer, Mr. Simpson. You’ll also be getting this exquisite faux pearl necklace, a $99 value, as our gift to you.”
    Providing clients with bonus offers for seeking legal services is not allowed, and Hutz’s offer suggests that accessing legal services is similar to buying consumer goods.

Wertheim connected The Simpsons’ legal “consumerization” to an American Supreme Court ruling in 1977 that removed many restrictions on lawyers’ advertisements. Prior to this ruling, American lawyers were not allowed to advertise their services in newspapers, magazines, radio, or television.

While no truly outrageous advertisements for Lionel Hutz have been seen on The Simpsons, he has advertised that “Cases won in 30 minutes or your pizza’s free!” and one of his business cards included the tag line “As seen on TV.”

However, in reality since the 1977 American ruling there have been a handful of extreme American television advertisements for lawyers. For example, many Saskatchewan cable television viewers are familiar with New York lawyer Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro’s over-the-top commercials. Shapiro’s advertisements are currently archived on YouTube.

Because advertising legal services may assist the public in finding an appropriate lawyer and result in increased access to the legal system, Saskatchewan lawyers are permitted to advertise their services. However, the Law Society of Saskatchewan – the professional organization that oversees the province’s lawyers – applies strict rules. Saskatchewan lawyers’ advertisements:

  • must be consistent with the public interest
  • must not detract from the integrity, independence or effectiveness of the legal profession
  • must not mislead or arouse unattainable hopes and expectations, because this could result in distrust of legal institutions and lawyers
  • must not adversely affect the quality of legal services
  • must not be so undignified, in bad taste or otherwise offensive as to be prejudicial to the interests of the public or the legal profession
  1. Consider Lionel Hutz’s offer of a free pizza if a case is not won in thirty minutes, and the rules that the Law Society has placed upon lawyers’ advertisements.
    1. Would this kind of advertising be permitted under Saskatchewan’s guidelines? Why or why not?
    2. What does your answer to (a) reveal about the nature of satire?
  2. A study completed for the American Bar Association, Public Perceptions of Lawyers, reported that people found some American lawyers’ advertising to be “unprofessional, overpromising, overly dramatic, and targeted to vulnerable people.” Search for an over-the-top American law firm advertisement on an online video website, and search for local lawyer advertisements found in your telephone directory.
    1. Do you believe that the American television advertisement would meet the guidelines required of Saskatchewan lawyers? Why or why not?
    2. How do the advertisements for local lawyers compare to the extreme American advertisement?
  3. Do you think it is fair to base opinions of the legal profession on outliers such as outrageous American advertisements or satirical representations such as Lionel Hutz? Why or why not?