The Firm (1993) is a legal thriller starring Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman. The film is based on the 1991 novel The Firm by author John Grisham.
Here’s the premise: A young lawyer, Mitch McDeere, joins a small but prestigious law firm only to find out that most of their clients are on the wrong side of the law. The company is helping to launder mob money, get clients off charges and even murder partners who threaten to blow their cover. But when the FBI comes calling to gather evidence on the lawyer’s colleagues, he is caught between a rock and a hard place, juggling his life and his liberty.
As I watched The Firm for my third of fourth time (it’s one of my favorites), this time looking for teachable moments about FBI policy and procedures, I soon realized the lesson to highlight was informant development or, in today’s FBI vernacular, the development of human intelligence. There are cases where the only way law enforcement can gather evidence is to have someone on the inside.
In The Firm, we learn the FBI has been working the case against Bendini Lambert & Locke for four years with minimum progress. The development of Mitch as a source starts with the scene where agents approach Mitch, the newest of the firm’s law associates, in a diner to warn him he is not employed by the upstanding law firm he thinks he is. The agents then they walk away. They give Mitch just enough information to figure out on his own that the law firm is involved in a tax fraud and money laundering scheme on the behalf of their clients, the Chicago mob.
The next time they approach him is while Mitch is attending training out of town and far from the watchful eyes of the firm’s security folks. Agents lay the groundwork to encourage him to assist them in the investigation, stating his options are cooperation, death, or federal prison. The classic line, “Your life as you know it is over,” sums up what it’s like in real life when the FBI comes to speak with a potential source.
Before they “invited” him to cooperate, the agents had already determined that Mitch was the best person at the law firm to approach. That’s how it’s done in real life. The FBI evaluates potential sources regarding their involvement in the crime, what information they know, and their ability to assist in the investigation.
The movie portrays these steps accurately.
The movie is, however, incorrect when it comes to how informants can provide assistance in an investigation. They cannot steal files and turn them over to the FBI. They can only provide documents that they have access to during their normal course of business.
In real life, I believe the evidence Mitch took from the firm would have been inadmissible in court. The top attorneys at Bendini Lambert & Locke would fight to have the evidence Mitch gave to the FBI suppressed, arguing that he was acting as an agent of and under the direction of the government and a search warrant should have been used to obtain those client files copied while Mitch’s boss was drugged and none the wiser. Plus, even if it was ruled that the files were admissible (I seriously doubt it), after Mitch takes the money and he and his wife flee, who would authenticate the files and provide testimony to the court about where the files came from and how they were acquired?
The movie also shows the potential pitfalls of using informants, who are primarily looking out only for themselves. Most of the time, agents and their sources develop a trusting relationship. But there have been situations where sources have betrayed their agent handlers.
The sequel to the novel, The Firm, titled The Exchange, was just published, so you can now find out how it all played out. I read the book, but no spoilers here.