Michelle Pfeiffer (Rita Harrison Williams) and Sean Penn (Sam Dawson) star in I Am Sam, the story of a man with a low IQ who fights for custody of his 7-year-old daughter.
Scene: Lawyer Rita Harrison Williams is trying her level best to prep her client Sam Dawson, who has the intellectual capacity of a 7-year-old, to show he’s fully capable of raising his daughter, Lucy. The problem for Williams is that Dawson is incapable of doing anything but telling the truth. Once he’s on the witness stand, Williams questions Dawson, expecting him to deliver answers that will make him seem more adult and responsible. Instead, Dawson becomes frustrated and starts revealing the bitter, heart-wrenching truth—that he doesn’t feel he can take care of all of Lucy’s needs.
Lesson for lawyers: I’ve long been taken by the juxtaposition of a well-meaning lawyer trying to use a level of persuasion and irony to put her best case forward on a client who is “wonderfully childlike” and unable to shade the truth, even with so much at stake.
The scene is very poignant. It’s an indictment of our traditional trial system and shows that it’s virtually impossible to be entirely honest in an adversarial world. I Am Sam vividly demonstrates that cases like this are much better handled through alternative dispute resolution and outside the traditional adversarial court process. The truth is so much more complicated. Ultimately, everyone involved works out a solution much better than what the court could do.