Opening Statements

"So, this lawyer walks into a bar ..."

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Days before Cassandra E. Hooks was to sit for the California bar exam, her 4-year-old son was hospitalized with a bacterial infection.

The urge to be with him 24/7 was overwhelming, but she knew that she’d risk failure—and a rescinded job offer—if she stopped studying. “I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. “I just kept thinking, I have to pass this test or we’ll all die; family life will end.”

It’s a struggle that perhaps only a lawyer could truly understand. But the documentary filmmakers behind A Lawyer Walks into a Bar are hoping it will translate into cinematic gold. (See clips from the film.)

The movie, available on DVD in September, follows six California law grads as they prepare for the July 2006 bar exam.

Framing their stories is an examination of the effect of law and lawyers on American culture that includes cameos by Alan Dershowitz, Catherine Crier and Robert Shapiro. In one segment, Joe Jamail and Mark Lanier separately spin the same yarn about each other; in another, Vernon Jordan recalls a chilling run-in with a racist during his own bar exam.

While the film definitely makes a point, it never strays into too-serious territory for long—on purpose, says co-executive producer Jonathan Osborne. “We didn’t want to do anything too educational. We wanted it to be fun, watchable and entertaining.”

The movie brings bar exam questions to life with animation straight outta South Park and showcases over-the-top verdicts and logic-defying product warning labels. There are even lawyer jokes, courtesy of comedian Eddie Griffin. Yet it’s the six aspiring esquires who make up the heart of the movie. “Our goal was that you cared about these characters and wanted them to be lawyers—and that you understood why they wanted to be lawyers,” says director Eric Chaikin.

For returning student Magda Madrigal, passing the bar meant she could realize her dreams of becoming an activist within the local Hispanic community. Megan S. Meadows wanted to honor her father, who had recently passed away. And for Donald Baumeister, the effort had become epic as he faced the exam for the 42nd time—now with the help of a professional tutor. “The bar,” says Chaikin, “equalizes all of them.”

The six welcomed cameras into their lives after answering an e-mail issued by Camel’s Back Films in early 2006. “I thought it would be a cool thing to be involved in during this period of my life,” says Hooks, a litigation associate at McCormick Barstow in Fresno, Calif. “It’s such a weird moment in time: three or four months that can determine the path of your entire life.”

Starting in May, the filmmakers documented everything from study sessions to late-night crying jags to the moment of truth, when all six logged onto the Cali­fornia bar’s Web site to check their scores. Not everyone makes the cut, and the drama is as gut-wrenching as it is real.

Hooks says she didn’t mind the company. “I had signed up for the documentary, so it was just part of that. If I failed, I just did it in front of a lot of people.”

Meadows says participating in the film served as incentive to study even harder. “I didn’t want anyone recording me if I failed,” she says.

Meadows, who’s working as a con­tract lawyer in Los Angeles, has seen the movie three times already and attended its world premiere at the South by Southwest film fes­ti­val in Austin, Texas. “I thought they did a great job,” she says. “Even my mom said, ‘Now I get it.’ ”

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