Let’s face it…Hollywood has produced a lot of movies about lawyers.
But have you ever wanted to know which of those movies are actually liked by real lawyers? If so, you’re in luck.
Just for fun, our firm decided we’d share with you a list of 10 Lawyer Movies that Real Lawyers Actually Love.
No matter what your career may be, you can’t help but critique a portrayal of it when you see it on the screen. And attorneys are certainly that way when they watch movies that involve lawyers, courtroom dramas, and legal battles.
Whether a movie is funny or serious, it’s always impressive when you see a film that leaves you thinking, “Hey, that could actually happen!” Or “Yep, that’s how it actually works.” And even better, “I can use that!”
So if you’re thinking about entering law school…or you want to get a peek into what lawyer life is like…or you just want to watch a great movie, here are 10 great movies that come highly recommended by real lawyers.
Now, if you’re wondering how we compiled our list, well, we just asked our lawyer friends and colleagues a simple question:
What’s your favorite lawyer movie, and why?
And based on the responses we received, here’s our Top 10 List of Lawyer Movies That Lawyers Actually love.
#10 – A Few Good Men:
Coming in at #10 on our list is A Few Good Men. This is a 1992 film starring Tom Cruise and Demi Moore as military lawyers tasked with defending two Marines accused of murder.
This film gives us an excellent view of how trials work. But it also does what a great movie should do. It tells us something important about the human condition.
In the movie, Tom Cruise’s character isn’t just fighting a legal battle in the courtroom. He’s also fighting to overcome the shadow of his famous attorney father. He’s constantly being challenged and has to ask himself if he is good enough? (you don’t need a famous parent as a lawyer to know what that’s like)
What lawyers also like about this film is Demi Moore’s character. This may have been her best role ever. She plays the type of person you repeatedly meet in the legal field and in business. At one point, Tom Cruise’s character asks, “why are you always giving me your resume?” Perhaps she worries that she doesn’t measure up either. It’s common in our industry.
So this film gives us an important principle about lawyer life:
YOU WILL ALWAYS BE SCARED THAT YOU DON’T MEASURE UP.
It starts with the law school entrance exam, then it carries through all your course work. Next, you must pass the Bar exam and then interview as a new lawyer with a firm. You will question your fitness for this line of work every step of the way. So you have to learn to funnel that fear into something useful and let it drive you to learn more, try harder, and do excellent work.
#9 – Amistad:
At #9 on our list is Amistad, a 1997 film directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Anthony Hopkins and Morgan Freeman.
This is the story of a slave revolt aboard a ship that sets sail from Africa and ends up off Long Island’s coast. The legal aspect of the film centers on the question of where the ship originally came from? If the ship came from Africa, then it was involved in illegal slave trading. But if the ship came from Cuba (as claimed by some), then different laws applied.
What lawyers find so appealing about this film is its emphasis on “story.” Story is the most important component of courtroom work. And this film illustrates this point beautifully.
We highly recommend watching the scene in the movie where Anthony Hopkin’s character asks Morgan Freeman’s character, “what’s their story?” It is cinematic perfection, with an unforgettable legal insight as well!
And when the courtroom battle is won, Cinque, the slave, asks Anthony Hopkins character what words he used to convince the court. “Your words,” he replies. And that is what lawyers do. We tell our client’s stories.
In fact, this is an important lawyer life principle you learn from this movie:
THE CLIENT’S STORY IS ALWAYS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF EVERY CASE.
So learn to be a great storyteller!
#8 – Dark Waters:
The #8 film on our list is the 2019 legal thriller Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo. This film was based on an article from New York Times Magazine entitled “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” And it’s about a corporate defense attorney who suddenly finds himself in the role of a plaintiff lawyer as he helps a town sue a chemical company that contaminated their environment with hazardous chemicals.
We haven’t seen this film. But several lawyers recommended it. So we’ll have to check it out too!
#7 – Legally Blonde:
At #7 on our list is the 2001 comedy Legally Blonde, starring Reese Witherspoon as the unforgettable character of Elle Woods.
As we said before, what makes a film great is when it tells us something about the human condition. There is an inner story and an outer story. Here, the outer story is about a stereotypical bubbly, fashion-obsessed sorority queen who has been dumped by her boyfriend. To win him back, she enrolls at Harvard Law School, where he is a student. But what she learns about herself along the way is the inner story, in which she realizes that she’s more than just a pretty face who can plan parties. She’s a litigator, and she has value.
What lawyers also like about this movie is that it touches on something important about the legal field. And that is, never take an opponent for granted. In this movie, no one takes Elle seriously, even though she turns out to be a formidable opponent, which leads us to an essential aspect of lawyer life we see in this movie:
NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE LAWYER ON THE OTHER SIDE.
And even though this movie might seem a bit far-fetched at first glance, here’s an interesting tidbit: it’s based on Amanda Brown’s real-life experiences as a blonde attending Stanford Law School. Oh, and the manuscript for her book caught the attention of a top agent because it was the only manuscript he had ever seen that was entirely printed on pink paper!
#6 – The Rainmaker:
At #6 on our list is The Rainmaker, a 1997 film written by lawyer John Grisham and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Matt Damon and Danny Devito. In this movie, an underdog lawyer takes on a fraudulent insurance company.
What’s interesting about this film is that it shows the business side of practicing law. Also, lawyers love Danny Devito’s character. He plays a man who failed the Bar Exam 6 times, and he ends up as a paralegal. But he’s an incredible paralegal. And as every successful trial attorney can tell you, a great paralegal is often the secret to their success. This leads us to an essential point about lawyer life shown in this film:
LEGAL WORK IS A TEAM SPORT, AND GREAT PARALEGALS ARE A CRUCIAL PART OF THE TEAM.
The next two movies on our list are both from the 1950s. But they are both GREAT movies, so don’t let their age scare you away.
#5 – Anatomy of a Murder:
At #5 on our list is Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger, starring Jimmy Stewart (and an awesome movie poster designed by famed designer Saul Bass!).
This movie’s plot involves a murder trial where the defendant says he suffered temporary insanity after the victim raped his wife. What lawyers like about this movie is that it shows how an effective legal defense is developed in a difficult case. And they also like that it shows a unique aspect of the judicial process in that it is entirely dependent on human beings, which means every element is subject to the fallibility of personal biases, beliefs, and perspectives on justice, morality, and ethics.
This leads us to another lawyer life principle we see in this movie:
JUDGES, JURIES, CLIENTS, WITNESSES, EXPERTS, AND ATTORNEYS ARE ALL HUMAN BEINGS FULL OF BIASES, DIFFERENT LIFE EXPERIENCES, AND DIFFERENT WORLDVIEWS…SO THE LEGAL PROCESS CAN BE VERY UNPREDICTABLE.
An interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that the judge is played by real-life lawyer Joseph Welch, famous for taking down Joseph McCarthy during the infamous McCarthy hearings.
Who can forget when he uttered the words, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
We could sure use another lawyer like Joseph Welch these days!
#4 – Witness for the Prosecution
At #4 on our list is Witness for the Prosecution, a movie directed by Billy Wilder based on a story by Agatha Christie. The film stars classic Hollywood legends Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton.
This film again centers on a murder case. However, in this case, the defendant’s wife offers to testify on his behalf to give him an alibi. What lawyers love about this film is that it perfectly illustrates the legal concept of “credibility.”
We can’t tell you how many times we have to explain to a client that we truly believe their mother is a nice person who would never tell a lie. But she might have some portion of bias.
Personally, the most-credible witnesses we have ever seen on the witness stand are plaintiff’s ex-spouses who hate them to the core but still think the plaintiff was actually injured or is telling the truth. And in that same vein, this movie demonstrates the power of credibility in a witness. Marlene Deitrich plays the wife of the defendant, and she is incredible.
This film’s “Lawyer Life” principle:
THE CREDIBILITY OF YOUR WITNESS IS KEY
#3 – A Civil Action
At #3 on our list is A Civil Action, a 1998 film starring John Travolta. This movie is about a lawyer who takes on a case involving a company responsible for causing an outbreak of leukemia after contaminating a town’s water supply. But taking on this case means risking bankrupting his firm and losing his career.
What this movie illustrates really well is the risk aspect of being a plaintiff’s attorney. A criminal defense attorney gets paid whether they win, lose, or have a hung jury. Likewise, the civil defense attorney is paid by the hour. But a plaintiff’s attorney works on a contingency fee, which means they don’t make any money unless they win the client’s case. They also have to fund the case, sometimes for two or more years. They have to spend enormous sums of money on experts and consultants for the litigation process with no financial guarantee whatsoever.
So this movie illustrates an essential principle of “Lawyer Life:”
THERE IS ALWAYS RISK…ESPECIALLY FOR CIVIL PLAINTIFF’S LAWYERS
#2 – The Verdict
And at #2 on our list is The Verdict, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Paul Newman. This is a movie about a lawyer who sees an opportunity to save his career and self-respect by trying a medical malpractice case instead of settling.
It’s funny how the movies A Civil Action and The Verdict ended up next to each other on our list. A Civil Action is about a man who loses all his money and becomes down and out, and that’s precisely where The Verdict picks up.
At the beginning of The Verdict, we find Paul Newman’s character, a washed-up, alcoholic attorney who comes across a great medical malpractice case. He’s offered a lot of money to settle. And he needs the money! But what did we say makes for a great film? It tells us something about the human condition. And in this movie, this isn’t about a legal case for Newman’s character. It’s about his ability to redeem his life. It’s about fighting for a cause bigger than himself.
And that leads us to another principle of “Lawyer Life” that all veteran lawyers know:
IF YOU PRACTICE LAW LONG ENOUGH, YOU WILL EVENTUALLY BE CONFRONTED WITH A CASE THAT IS BIGGER THAN YOURSELF
#1 – My Cousin Vinny
And finally, at number one on our list, we have My Cousin Vinny, starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Pesci, and Marisa Tomei. The film has it all!
It’s a story about two New Yorkers accused of murder in rural Alabama while on their way back to college. Claiming they are wrongly accused because of cultural bias, they call in for the help of one of their cousins – a loudmouth lawyer named Vinny with no trial experience.
What lawyers love about this movie is that it shows how bias enters the legal profession from all sides. It gives us great examples of cross-examination techniques and how vital analogies are for communicating ideas. And it’s funny…Very funny!
As for this film’s exploration of bias in the legal process, consider this:
The film starts with Mona Lisa Vito, a tough NY girl judging the Alabama town by assuming that they couldn’t possibly have good Chinese food.
When the boys call home, proclaiming their innocence, they are overheard by the people in the jail as they tell their family that the people in the south are corrupt and sleep with their cousins.
The southern judge is hard on Vinny because he figures this city lawyer is looking down on his courtroom, which he takes pride in.
When Mona Lisa takes the witness stand during the trial, we all judge her because of how she speaks, but she demonstrates that our bias is wrong.
So how does Vinny eventually win the case? And what does he learn in the process? He learns that he needs help from others. And open mind that is humbly open to help from others is critical for winning trials.
And this leads to our final “Lawyer Life” principle:
ALLOW OTHER PEOPLE TO HELP YOU
So there you have it: 10 lawyer movies that REAL lawyers actually love.
Now, it’s time for you to go make some popcorn and watch some great movies.
And if you think the attorneys we surveyed left out other excellent movies we should add to our list, leave us a comment and tell us your thoughts.