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  • June 14, 2022

    What 'Caddyshack' Taught Me About Practicing Law

    In this second of (what we hope is) a series, Dan Rislove discusses the important legal lessons he learned from the 1980 hit comedy 'Caddyshack.' Cute but clever gophers aside, the story reveals a few points to remember for your practice, he says.

    Daniel C. Rislove

    golf ball

    I thoroughly enjoyed Emily S. Kelchen’s article What ‘The Godfather’ Taught Me About Practicing Law. I have to admit it generated a great deal of discussion at our firm. However, allow me to respectfully suggest that the source of all practical legal knowledge derives not from The Godfather, but rather from the 1980 hit comedy Caddyshack.

    Here are a few movie quotes to illustrate my point.

    ‘So I jump ship in Hong Kong …’

    In this scene, greenskeeper Carl Spackler relates the implausible tale of how he once caddied for the Dalai Lama himself. “The flowing robes, the grace, bald. .. striking.” Carl has a captive audience in caddy Angie D’Annunzio, who smiles nervously as Carl holds a pitchfork to his throat.

    Dan Rislove headshot Dan Rislove, U.W. 2007, is a consumer bankruptcy attorney with Christianson & Freund, LCC in Eau Claire. He has also worked as a laser researcher, professor of physics and astronomy, prosecutor, and clerk for the Supreme Court of Guam, where he often got in nine holes before coming into the office.

    The lesson here is not so much achieving total consciousness on your deathbed, but rather learning to listen to your clients, no matter how implausible their understanding of the law may be.

    Clients may – in fact, usually will – have a theory of the case that completely absolves them of all responsibility. They may also have an incorrect understanding of what the law is, or how it should be applied to their situation. True, part of your job is to correct misunderstandings of the law.

    But it is also important to take a cue from Angie D’Annunzio – sometimes the best course of action is just to listen all the way to the end of the story. In the end, clients just want to know that you are listening to them. Do this, and you may even find yourself earning a reputation as a good listener.

    So you’ll have that going for you. Which is nice.

    ‘Danny,... I've sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn't wanna do it, but felt I owed it to them’

    Judge Smails represents the intransigence of the law, the much-disparaged “bright line” rule that applies in every situation, whether just or not. His is the opposite of the “law-in-action” approach many of us learned in law school. Although the reference to juvenile executions is a little dated given Roper v. Simmons, inflexible applications of the law are still a reality in our everyday practices.

    Don’t be a Judge Smails. Your client may have the right to subpoena the ex-husband’s new girlfriend, but would justice be served by doing so?

    Take a holistic approach to the problem. Try to achieve a satisfactory result without relying too much on legal technicalities as either a sword or a shield. Treat opposing counsel with the same flexibility. If there’s any chance your client may owe someone money, your answer shouldn’t always be a knee-jerk “you’ll get nothing and like it.” Be a counselor, a mediator, and a seeker of justice.

    And, if all else fails, try offering opposing counsel a Fresca.

    ‘Hey Moose! Rocco! Help the judge find his checkbook’

    One gets the distinct impression that Al Chervik’s business practices aren’t much different than the methods he uses to collect his gambling debts.

    While lawyers should never resort to “muscle” in collecting their client’s debts, there is a little nugget of wisdom in the phrase “find his checkbook.” One of the services that lawyers provide is helping clients and opposing counsel understand who owes what to whom.

    At the beginning of a case, everyone is equally convinced that they owe nothing and that someone owes something to them. If you do your job correctly, the parties may eventually agree that, indeed, someone does need to pay. Sometimes, it may be your client who needs to pay – sometimes it’s the other party.

    I call this convincing the party to “find their checkbook.” If this can be accomplished without the assistant of a couple of beefy mafiosi, all the better.

    ‘In order to conquer the animal, I have to learn to think like an animal. And, whenever possible, to look like one’

    In Caddyshack, Carl Spackler’s epic battle with a harmless-looking, nuisance gopher is the source of much amusement – and wisdom. Carl is the eminent tactician, intellectual protégé of Sun Tzu, who said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

    To the extent that war is an analogy for the law, this is good advice. Try to understand your opponent’s position and try to see the arguments from their point of view. Put yourself in their shoes, so that you can better understand how they might respond to your aggressive discovery request, or how they might react to your settlement offer. Half the battle is anticipating how your opponent might respond.

    On the other hand, the analogy of law to war only goes so far. Remember, the goal of law is justice, not annihilation. If, at the end of your case, you find yourself surveying a destroyed golf course where all the “gorl-fers” are dead, you have failed as an attorney.

    Lessons Taken to Heart

    Caddyshack is an almost limitless source of legal wisdom, and I take these lessons to heart in my own practice.

    In the end, it’s not just a matter of keeping your eye on the ball – you need to “be the ball” that your clients want and deserve.

    Editor’s note: Do you have a film that summarizes the lessons you’ve learned while practicing law? We want to hear from you – send me an email.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin's Nonresident Lawyers Blog. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Nonresident Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.

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    Nonresident Lawyers Blog is published by the Nonresident Lawyers Division and the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by division members. To contribute to this blog, contact Emily Kelchen and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Nonresident Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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