Bar Exams, Movies

‘How Did You Pass The BAAAAAr’? Frank Abagnale Jr. Says It’s Easy To Fake Being A Lawyer

Catch Me If You Can is a fun movie. Tom Hanks has a delightful Boston accent that really captures the “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe people talk like this” aspect of the sounds. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of teenage con-man Frank Abagnale Jr. is fun and entertaining. And there’s a Chris Walken sighting.

In the movie, Hanks’s FBI Agent, Carl Hanratty, chases after Abagnale as he forges checks, degrees, and a number of professions. One thing Hanratty can’t figure out is how Agagnale “faked” his way through the Louisiana Bar Exam and gained legal credentials. When Hanratty finally collars Abagnale (SPOILER ALERT: this movie came out in 2002), the con man revels that he didn’t “cheat” on the bar exam, he just studied “for two weeks and passed.”

For many lawyers, this was an anticlimactic end to a running joke in the movie. With all due respect to people who can’t pass the Louisiana bar, passing the Louisiana bar is not particularly hard (despite the test’s unusual length and civil-law components). I don’t know if you can do it in two weeks. But in a month? In six weeks? Even without going to law school, I’m not sure there is a bar exam in the country that is so hard that a reasonably intelligent person couldn’t pass it with intense study over a few months. Again, they’re not really teaching you what you need to do as a lawyer in law school, they’re just messing with how you think.

It turns out that the real life Frank Abagnale Jr. passed the LA Bar on his third try. But there wasn’t any deception involved, he eventually just passed the test. Once he earned the credentials, Abagnale says that pretending to be a lawyer was one of the easiest things to fake.

He’s not wrong…

The Minneapolis Business Journal got an interview with the Abagnale Jr., who now works as a fraud consultant, according to the ABA Journal. Abagnale also faked being a pilot and a doctor, and compared to those two occupations, being a pretend lawyer was easy:

Faking familiarity with medical and aviation terminology proved difficult, he said, but impersonating a lawyer wasn’t hard at all (keep in mind that Abagnale wasn’t trying cases or making deals, but instead worked as a legal assistant)…

“Of all the things I did, the easiest profession (to fake) was the lawyer,” he said. “As the lawyer, I found most of it was a matter of research, which I was great at — that’s what I did to death — and then basically persuading people that you’re right and they’re wrong. … I found that the easiest of all the professions to impersonate.”

The man really has hit on the key to the legal profession, hasn’t he? Doctors, pilots — these people are expected to know things. Lawyers are expected to sound like they know things.

Actually, let me rephrase, bad lawyers are expected to sound like they know things. Good lawyers, the ones at the very top of their field, generally sound like they don’t know anything, but they can find out for you. Go ahead, try asking a really good lawyer a simple question, I promise you won’t get a straight answer.

“Counselor, I survived this plane crash when the drunk pilot careened into another plane, but my leg got crushed and needed to be amputated. But then this stupid doctor cut off my arm instead of my leg. Now I’m in this hospital and my leg is still messed up and I might die. Who can I sue?”
“Oh boy, well, it’s actually pretty interesting… [hours pass]… so I’ll need to know more about [who has deeper pockets] but it definitely sounds like you have a case.”
“Or, I should say your estate has a case.”

I’m not saying that law is a con. A successful attorney is steeped in knowledge, not just about the law but also about the relevant facts underlying whatever case he takes or deal he negotiates.

But it strikes me as obvious that being a lawyer is one of the easiest things to “fake” for a time. You could probably do a whole reality series about this. “Unlicensed Attorney: Real attorneys go up against actors and con men in a court of law. Will a jury be able to tell the difference?”

Come to think of it: somebody get TLC on the line, I should cash in that idea.

What’s the easiest job to fake? Lawyer, says ‘Catch Me If You Can’ con man Abagnale [Minneapolis Law Journal]
‘Catch Me if You Can’ Con Man Says It’s Easy to Fake Being a Lawyer [ABA Journal]

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