Phoenix Wright Represents an Ideal to Strive For
I owe a lot to Phoenix Wright. If I hadn’t played Ace Attorney when I did, it’s very possible my life would have gone in a totally different direction. I can’t give Ace Attorney full credit for my decision to become a lawyer, yet it undeniably sparked an interest that led me down that path. Ace Attorney, and the character of Phoenix Wright specifically, turned the idea of practicing law from some foreign concept into an exciting prospect for the future. Investigating cases, uncovering lies, calling parrots as witnesses…it seemed like a good fit for me – or maybe to be more accurate, the person I wanted to be. Experiencing Phoenix’s trials inspired me to dig deeper into what lawyering was like in real life and pushed me to become the person I am now.
I’m a few years into the real thing at this point, so what Ace Attorney meant to me back then differs from what it means to me now. It probably goes without saying that Ace Attorney takes some liberties with the lawyering experience. Hearing testimony from animals occurs less often than I was led to believe. You’re not supposed to slam the tables, either. Still, even after reaching the destination that Phoenix Wright pointed me towards, I continue to draw inspiration from his games. Rather than seeing Phoenix Wright as an occupational goal, he now represents an ideal: one that no matter how much the legal system hurts or frustrates me, is one worth striving for.
Practicing law can be painful. Legal systems ground themselves in laws, theoretically objective measures that when applied properly to a situation, should get you the “correct” result. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Legal systems are ultimately maintained by people, and people aren’t perfect. Between the parties in a lawsuit, their lawyers, the court staff, and even the judges themselves, there is plenty of room for interpretations and imperfections in how the law is applied. You can know everything there is to know about the law and follow all the rules carefully, yet somewhere along the way your client will be subject to whims and forces outside your control. You’re never 100% guaranteed the result you believe should happen. Honest lawyers avoid guaranteeing their clients results for exactly this reason.
“Wrong” results often occur to varying degrees, and at their worst, these cases count among among the most frustrating experiences of my entire life. I certainly walk away from some proceedings thinking I could have done better. At others, though, I’ve come away from court feeling as though the system itself failed my client and there was nothing I could do about it. This can cut both ways, too. Sometimes my clients have gotten everything they wanted to my complete surprise, and I believed in the back of my head that they probably shouldn’t have. Results vary and often defy the logic laws are meant to inject into the process.
In that sense, being a lawyer is more about attempting to control the chaos and pushing the odds in your favor. Your duty to your client is to put them in the best possible position to get what they want. As a lawyer, however, you also owe a duty to the legal system itself. There are universal values of truth and justice that you’re meant to uphold – these are arguably the entire point of having a legal “system.” Lawyers clash in court representing the best versions of two different viewpoints in order for a judge or jury to decide the appropriate result. That result should reflect justice, or at least as close to justice as an imperfect system run by imperfect people can produce. That’s where Phoenix Wright comes in.
The Ace Attorney games and the character of Phoenix Wright represent the ultimate ideal of most legal systems: to get things right. No matter how lopsided the evidence may be or how hopeless things may look, Phoenix fights to the bitter end to uncover the truth and ensure justice is done. That remains the one constant of his character, even when circumstances push him to his limits.
People often characterize Ace Attorney as a parody of legal systems. Specifically, they say these games are a cynical, absurdist take on just how hopeless and poorly run the Japanese legal system can be. I can’t fully speak to whether series creator Shu Takumi intended for his writing to be a criticism of the legal system, as I have never read his mind. Maybe someday. However, I will say that this idea isn’t present in any public accounts I’ve read from the man, and the ones that I have read imply that he knew little about the legal system while writing the games and did not intend for them to meaningfully tackle the idea of trials.
I understand why people would interpret these games as social commentary. Your clients get stuck with charges based on absurd evidence and reasoning. Detectives are overzealous and quick to jump to conclusions. Attorneys range from underhanded to incompetent. Judges (well, at least the one judge) bumbles through the trial and is easily convinced by whoever happens to be speaking. Everything in the world of Ace Attorney comes across as over the top and exaggerated versions of flaws in the real world system.
Yet I don’t read Ace Attorney’s portrayals as seething critique, particularly after working with the law on a near daily basis. It’s true that situations like the ones Ace Attorney presents can happen to a degree. If I’m being honest, truth is frequently stranger than fiction. Compared to reality, however, the legal world of Phoenix Wright ends up being quite hopeful. For all of the obstacles that get thrown in Phoenix’s way, he always arrives at the truth, the true criminal always gets revealed, and the judge makes the right decision in the end.
In an area as gray as the law, however, ideals can come across as insincere or detached from reality. What grounds Phoenix’s ideals for me are that they came from someone without a legal background.
Earlier, I talked about how lawyers have a “duty” to the legal system. We have that duty because legal systems are meant to be a service to the people within them. Phoenix obsesses over the truth because Ace Attorney was originally envisioned as a detective game, but at some point along the way Mr. Takumi made a subconscious connection that this character would work as a lawyer. Even if Mr. Takumi didn’t intend to make any statements about the legal system, by giving a lawyer this uncompromising bend towards truth and portraying him as the hero, he was in a small way giving a glimpse into what he and perhaps the audience for the game might want from a heroic lawyer.
Even before I became a lawyer, that aspect of the character spoke to me. Broadly speaking, I think just about everyone would want the truth to be the biggest priority in a courtroom. It makes sense then that Phoenix Wright essentially represents what an average person would want from a lawyer, and the legal system itself. Is Phoenix and what he accomplishes totally compatible with how things work in reality? Not really, but that’s alright. Sometimes we can become so entrenched in how things are that we stop considering how things should be.
Part of my willingness to leave that trench comes from the fact that Phoenix actually feels surprisingly true to the lawyer experience. As crazy as Ace Attorney games can get, Phoenix feels like a real character with real flaws. He never overwhelmingly stomps over all the bad guys with his perfect ideology – the road to truth in a typical Ace Attorney case is often a long and winding comedy of errors.
Sad to say, lawyers aren’t perfect. I’m certainly not. I often hear in my profession that “there’s no such thing as a perfect trial.” You may not get to ask everything you wanted to, questioning won’t always go in the direction you expect, you might annoy the judge, and nerves can take hold at the worst possible times. In revisiting the first trial of the first Ace Attorney game, I admired how well it captured the tenseness of that kind of situation. Law school doesn’t teach you everything about being a lawyer and it won’t save you from your nerves. Experience is key. The idea that Phoenix could forget something basic like the victim’s name isn’t far out of the realm of possibility for a nervous rookie.
Representing someone else involves taking on a lot of responsibility. Depending on the situation, your client is putting a major aspect of their life and future into your hands. That weight remains present in every case you work on. It in equal parts makes me nervous while also pushing me to want to do the best job I possibly can. Conquering your nerves ends up being a major component of the job.
What makes Phoenix particularly compelling as a character is that while he noticeably improves over his rookie days, he never becomes infallible. (Well, he comes awfully close in the fourth game. Don’t get me started on that today.) Part of that lies in the hands of the player, who is likely to take a few wrong stabs at pointing out contradictions, but even in the actual narrative he never becomes overly competent. I’ve seen some people complain that in the later games Phoenix still makes mistakes and gets frazzled at unexpected reveals. I like it; that rings true to life. I regularly see lawyers far older than me making mistakes – that’s just part of being human, and I enjoy that Phoenix’s goofball nature persists no matter how much experience he gains.
Where Phoenix demonstrates his experience best is in one of the most important skills needed for trial: adaptability. The biggest difference between an Ace Attorney trial and a real world trial lies in planning. In the real world, you generally know your arguments, all of the evidence you will be using, who will be testifying, and what they’re all likely going to say prior to the trial. Phoenix apparently just wings it. He does some investigating, collects some evidence, and then when he shows up to court the next morning he mumbles something to Maya about hoping they can find a contradiction to use. Not much of a plan, Nick!
I admit that asking questions from the top of your head and conjuring up arguments to toss out as Hail Marys removes Phoenix from the realm of reality far more than most aspects of Ace Attorney. Where this aspect of the character roots itself in reality comes from the principle of thinking on your feet. Planning things out for a trial offers several advantages to the Phoenix Method, however the key disadvantage is that it risks making you rigid. Sometimes you will need to adapt your arguments and especially your questions based on how a trial progresses. A witness may say something unexpected and cause you to move your questioning in a new direction, a planned piece of evidence may get shot down by an objection, and sometimes you can just tell how a Judge is feeling about an issue and need to adjust accordingly.
Phoenix elevates this principle into an art form. The typical game flow of Ace Attorney revolves entirely around pressing witnesses on their statements in the hopes that their seemingly innocuous follow-ups happen to lead to shocking truths. You may call it luck, yet if it happens often enough clearly there’s some skill involved as well. Many crazy revelations in Ace Attorney start with something as simple as the witness getting the time wrong or mentioning they saw some bananas.
Although typically not as zany as in Ace Attorney, legal work is undeniably filled with crazy revelations. Depending on your legal specialty, you’re often encountering people at their absolute worst on a regular basis and everything that comes with that. If you had to deal with it entirely on your own, I’d say you’re liable to go a little crazy yourself. I believe it’s important to be able to talk with other attorneys or staff about your cases, if only for emotional support. Help with the actual case work is appreciated too, of course.
That’s part of what makes Maya such a wonderful character – her presence captures the reality that lawyers work best when they have someone to bounce off of. She essentially fills the role of Phoenix’s paralegal (luckily for her, actual laws are only sporadically relevant to legal proceedings in Ace Attorney world) but in a more practical sense, she’s there to help Phoenix absorb all nonsense going on in these cases. Her exchanges with Phoenix often highlight the fun of the situation amidst the tenseness, offering very real relief for both Phoenix and player. It’s no wonder that Mr. Takumi goes out of his way to remove her whenever he needs to really raise the stakes!
While I admire a lot about how Ace Attorney portrays the lawyer experience, there are some limits to the extent that I can admire Phoenix himself. I struggle in particular with Phoenix’s views on defending guilty clients. This is something that the games have touched on at multiple points, and I’ve always found the portrayal and answers reached by these stories to be disappointing.
In the real world, practicing law is a business, and we aren’t so lucky to always be on the side of the righteous. Even if it doesn’t immediately become apparent, sometimes it will dawn on you that your client happens to be the “bad guy” of the situation.
Simply dropping a client because you think they’re guilty or in the wrong is in most cases both a disservice to your client as well as the legal system as a whole. In order for the system to work, both sides need effective legal representation. In order for there to be a “right” result, there needs to be a “wrong” result, and by portraying the idea of Phoenix defending a guilty client as a negative thing, Ace Attorney is essentially saying that the “wrong” result doesn’t need a lawyer, or at least it shouldn’t be someone like Phoenix who values the truth. This idea calls into question what Phoenix’s understanding of his role in the legal system is even based on.
I absolutely understand why Mr. Takumi would portray things like this. Phoenix’s view absolutely looks like the morally correct view of this situation, I just disagree that it is on more than a superficial level.
This is one of the most challenging things for people who aren’t involved with practicing law to grapple with. I’ll readily admit it can be challenging for me. No one actually wants to defend a guilty person. As a lawyer, however, you often find that it’s your responsibility to do things you don’t want to do. What if an “obviously” guilty person turned out to be innocent? If no one defends the guilty person, then how can we say that a fair trial occurred? If our system can’t promise a fair trial, how can this be a system anyone believes in? It would be one thing if Ace Attorney, in all of its idealism, took a consistent view of saying good attorneys are always defending innocent people, while bad attorneys are always defending guilty people, that just isn’t the case.
How the story treats prosecutors complicates that idea. On paper, I’d say the story of Miles Edgeworth happens to be one of the strongest arcs in the series. He starts as a rude and arrogant prosecutor In the first game, changes his worldview in the immediate sequels, and eventually works his way up the career ladder in order to make meaningful changes to the system.
I like this arc for him, but the series also works very hard to rehabilitate him. The first game in particular portrays Edgeworth as noticeably corrupt – he colludes with shady characters like Redd White, he presents what is almost certainly forged evidence like “updated” autopsy reports, and pushes for guilty verdicts for Phoenix’s clients long after it becomes obvious they are innocent. You learn that before meeting Phoenix, Edgeworth had a perfect win record, and it seems exceedingly unlikely that all of those people were truly guilty. Edgeworth is not a good guy, even if he happened to be Phoenix’s friend prior to the events of the game.
Yet once Edgeworth has been “redeemed,” the series doesn’t dwell on the substance of his past actions. More importantly, the series never seems to take issue with the fact that literally every prosecutor in every subsequent game similarly advocates for the guilt of clearly innocent people. The series depicts these prosecutors as mean or aggressive, but never morally bankrupt simply for advocating for the guilt of your client.
A double standard exists here that I find to be Ace Attorney’s most distracting storytelling flaw. The prosecutors get a free pass for going out of their way to distort facts and evidence in the hopes of throwing an innocent person into prison, but that’s okay because it’s their job. The moment Phoenix defends someone who might actually be guilty, though, and suddenly we’re stuck in a horrifying moral dilemma.
Anyway, despite all of my paragraphs on it, I’m really not too worked up about this. Phoenix Wright represents an ideal, and ideals don’t always apply perfectly to the real world. Even if I disagree with how Ace Attorney portrays the responsibilities of defense attorneys, I can at least understand what it’s getting at with that portrayal.
I still have a lot to learn as an attorney as well. My thoughts on being a lawyer and how they connect with Phoenix Wright now are a snapshot. I may find that a decade from now I no longer feel the same way about this series. As of today, however, I am thankful for the direction Ace Attorney gave me in life. More importantly, I can respect the ideals of truth and justice that Phoenix Wright advocates for. These concepts may be a little naïve in the face of reality, but legal systems were ultimately founded with a similar naivety at heart. That being the case, I’ll continue to strive for those ideals in my own work, just like Phoenix Wright himself.