Ethics Quote Of The Month: “Bridge of Spies”


The shooting script for the Academy Award nominated film “Bridge of Spies” is now online. Written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, it, like the film that Steven Spielberg made out of it, provides an unusually accurate and nuanced portrayal of ethical lawyering. The movie is worth seeing, better more than once, and I expect that I will use many issues raised in it for class discussion as I teach legal ethics to lawyers this year.

There is one howlingly wrong scene, in which the lawyer, Jim Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) has a private discussion with the judge who will be sentencing his client, a convicted Russian spy. Donovan argues against a death sentence. If this happened, and I doubt it, it would have been an egregious ethics breach: this is called ex parte contact, and is strictly forbidden.

The film redeems this misstep many times over, especially in a scene that neatly explores both the duty of confidentiality and the duty of loyalty, as well as the crucial role of rules in society, and why “the ends justify the means” as well as those who advocate that philosophy must be rejected. “Ethics Bob” Stone told me that he now uses the scene in his business ethics classes.

The scene begins with Donovan meeting in a restaurant with a man who has been following him….

Yeah. Just wanted to chat. How’s the case going?

The case is going great. Couldn’t be better.

Uh-huh. Has your guy talked?

…Excuse me?

You met him, has he talked? Has he said anything yet?

Donovan stares at him. Then:

We’re not having this conversation.

No, of course not.

No, I mean we’re reallynot having it. You’re asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.

Oh c’mon counselor, you —

And I wish people like you would quit saying “Oh c’mon, counselor.” I didn’t like it the first time it happened today, a judge said it to me twice, and the more I hear it, the more I don’t like it.

Ok, well listen, I understand attorney-client privilege. I understand all the legal gamesmanship and I understand that that’s how you make a living. But I’m talking to you about something else — the security of your country. I’m sorry if the way I put it offends you, but we need to know what Abel is telling you. You understand me, Donovan? We need to know. Don’t go Boy Scout on me — we don’t have a rule book here.

Donovan takes a beat, sizing the man up.

You’re agent Hoffman, yeah?


German extraction?

Yeah, so?

My name is Donovan, Irish. Both sides, mother and father.I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing, one one one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans, it’s all that makes us Americans. So don’t tell me there’s no rule book and don’t nod at me like that you sonofabitch.

The man stops nodding and just looks at Donovan appraising him. Donovan smiles and gets up from the table, gathers his things.

Do we need to worry about you?

Not if I’m left alone to do my job.




8 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: “Bridge of Spies”

  1. I enjoyed this scene, and really enjoyed this film, on a number of levels. I think it’s some of Spielberg’s best work, and Hanks’s. In his own, North Carolina folksy-ish way, Andy Griffith covered this territory about 50 years ago as well. The attorney-client privilege is one of the foundations of our American civilization, and it’s nice, every so often, to be reminded that, yes, Law can be an ennobling profession, practiced with honor.

  2. I rarely go to the movie theater anymore, I just wait until I can watch movies at my leisure in the comfort of my own home. I’ll read the script before watching this one, thanks a bunch for providing the link.

    As for the scene above; I agree with Jack, Bravo to the character Donovan but more importantly Bravo to the writers for writing it!

  3. I finished the reading the final shooting script earlier today, then I sat down and watched the movie. It was easy to get a mental picture of the movie with the script before watching it; overall, it was pretty well written and the story came off on screen in the manner in which it was represented by the script. I’m curious Jack; do you know if the final shooting script written before or after the shooting of the film; if it was before shooting, then either Spielberg is very much a purest director or he had considerable direct input into the shooting script.

    I really don’t know how much genuine historical fact there was in the two Judges Byers chamber scenes, the unethical behavior of Judge Byers certainly added some tension but I think both of those scenes could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor instead of on screen, IMHO they really weren’t needed to continue the plot.

    I’d be curious just how much historical fact there was in the movie.

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