Top Ten Lawyer Movies

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, has asked for thoughts about movies featuring attorneys.  Faithful readers of this blog know that I have no hesitation about highlighting the less attractive aspects of my profession, for example here and here.  However, I would be less than candid if I did not admit that there are rather amusing or exciting aspects to being an attorney, and many of those occur in court.   Film reflects this, although it does not reflect the majority of an attorney’s work which is often congealed tedium.

10.  My Cousin Vinnie (1992)-One of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and hands down the funniest movie about a trial.  Joe Pesci is unforgettable as a fledgling litigator, a true diamond in the rough.  The late Fred Gwynne as the strict judge is very true to life.  (I suspect all attorneys who appear in courts encounter a judge as portrayed in the film sooner or later.)

9.     The Verdict (1982)-Paul Newman is unbelievably good as a burned out alcoholic attorney who gives everything he has to win a personal injury case. 

8.      A Few Good Men (1992)-The court martial is fairly unrealistic, but no list of films about attorneys would be complete without the cross-examination featured in the above video clip.

7.      Witness for the Prosecution (1957)-Charles Laughton steals every scene he is in as an aging barrister at the top of his game.  Besides, I really appreciate the comments about the British National Health Care system in the video clip!

6.        Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)-

Very loosely based on the Justice Trials of Nazi judges and Reich Ministry of Justice officialsJudgment at Nuremberg (1961) is a masterful exploration of justice and the personal responsibility of good men trapped in a totalitarian state.  Burt Lancaster, an actor of the first calibre, gives the performance of his career as Ernst Janning.  The early portion of the movie makes clear that Ernst Janning is in many ways a good man.  Before the Nazis came to power Janning was a world respected German jurist.  After the Nazis came to power evidence is brought forward by his defense counsel that Janning attempted to help people persecuted by the Nazis, and that he even personally insulted Hitler on one occasion.  Janning obviously despises the Nazis and the other judges who are on trial with him.  At his trial he refuses to say a word in his defense.  He only testifies after being appalled by the tactics of his defense counsel.  His magnificent and unsparing testimony convicts him and all the other Germans who were good men and women, who knew better, and who failed to speak out or to act against the Nazis.  Janning’s testimony tells us that sins of omission can be as damning as sins of commission.  When he reveals that he sentenced a man to death he knew to be innocent, we can only agree with his bleak assessment that he reduced his life to excrement.  Yet we have to respect Janning.  It is a rare man who can so publicly take responsibility for his own evil acts.

Yet even this  respect is taken away from Janning in the final scene of the film where he attempts to justify himself to Judge Haywood, superbly portrayed by Spencer Tracy, by saying that he never believed that it would all come to the millions of  dead in the concentration camps.  Judge Haywood delivers his verdict on this attempt by Janning to save some shred of self-respect:  “Herr Janning, it came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”

5.         Amistad (1997)-The closing argument in the Amistad case by John Quincy Adams as represented in the movie Amistad.  This is a greatly condensed version of course, as Adams spoke for eight and a half hours, not unusual for legal proceedings of that day. 

The text of Adams’ argument may be read here.  The case involved the successful mutiny of slaves on board the Spanish ship Amistad.  The mutiny occurred on July 2, 1839.  The slaves killed the members of the crew except for two crewmen who were promised their lives if they would return the Africans to their home in Africa.  Instead, the crewmen steered the unsuspecting slaves to America, where they were taken into custody half a mile off eastern Long Island on March 26, 1839.

The case quickly became a cause celebre, with abolitionists filing a petition  in federal court in Connecticut to have the slaves freed and returned to Africa.  Pro-slavery forces in response rallied around the Spanish government which filed a petition for return of the slaves.  The abolitionists argued that Spain had signed a treaty with Great Britain in 1817 to abolish the Atlantic slave trade and that therefore the Africans could not be slaves, but were rather victims of kidnapping.  In January 1840, the District Court agreed. President Martin Van Buren, who did not want to anger slave holding sentiment in the Democrat party, ordered the US Attorney for Connecticut to appeal.  The District Court’s judgment was affirmed in April 1840.

The US Attorney appealed to the US Supreme Court.  Oral argument occurred between February 23, 1841- March 1, 1841.  On March 9, 1841 the Supreme Court, with one dissent, affirmed the opinion of the District Court that the Africans were victims of kidnap and ordered that they be freed immediately.

4.         Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)-Henry Fonda is mesmerizing as a young Lincoln taking on his first big case.  The court room scenes in the film were very true to the period.  Judges in Lincoln’s day did not wear black robes, a feature accurately depicted in the film, and common sense and quick wits were of much more use in court than an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. 

3.          To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)-Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, taking on with unforgettable ability the doomed defense of a black man accused of rape in  Depression Era Alabama.

 2.          Anatomy of a Murder (1959)-Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott go head to head in this riveting murder trial.  One of the more accurate depictions of a trial on film.  The judge in the film was not a professional actor, but an attorney, Joseph Welch who became an early television star in the Army-McCarthy hearings.

1.            A Man for All Seasons (1966)-A saint and a brilliant attorney.  What an odd combination!  A Man for All Seasons reminds us that a brilliant mind is only of real use to humanity if it is guided by a moral heart.

18 Responses to Top Ten Lawyer Movies

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    In reference to My Cousin Vinny.

    When you refer to Mr. Gwynne as a “strict” judge, are you implying that wearing a clown suit is appropriate when representing clients in a court of law?

    I enjoyed the movie very much, but he wasn’t strict at all. It’s just proper court courtesy to wear something that doesn’t resemble a leisure suit from the 1970s.

    Unless of course in certain parts of Illinois that is deemed as “normal”.


  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Most judges Tito if they need to reprimand an attorney over such issues as proper attire will do so back in chambers. Other judges take delight in humiliating counsel in open court over relatively petty matters. This has not happened to me, I assume the judges that I appear in front of gave me up as a lost cause on minor matters long ago, but I have seen it done to other attorneys. It is much more humorous on screen than in real life. Of course an experienced attorney quickly learns that what may be done in Judge A’s courtroom may not be done in Judge B’s courtroom. I recall one Judge who had a mania about counsel requesting permission to approach him while he was on the bench. He hated this custom as he thought it wasted time. (I agree with him.) Some judges require this, so naturally this confused counsel unfamiliar with him. One day an attorney was held in contempt of court because she, out of force of habit, after being cautioned, requested leave to approach. Part of being a good trial attorney is learning all the quirks of the judges you appear before. This is why local counsel often have a strong home court advantage over counsel unfamiliar with the judge hearing the case.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Oh, and I have seen attorneys wear far worse in open court than the Pesci character, especially some female attorneys, who are usually give more leeway on courtroom attire than their male counterparts.

  4. Tito Edwards says:

    I’ve heard some female attorneys wearing a “closing argument” miniskirt.

    Memories of grad school, ahhhhh.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Some female attorneys have been admonished for dressing in too provocative a manner in court. I have never witnessed that. What I have seen are female attorneys who appear in court dressed much more casually than the court secretaries and stenographers. To be fair, I’ve also seen male attorneys in jeans and golfing shirts. The judges in my county issued an order a few years ago requiring a suit and tie. No one has attempted to apply it to the distaff side of the bar yet. One of the judges signing off on the order is female, and if I catch her in the right mood some day I’ll mention that!

  6. Sydney Carton says:

    Almost all of these scenes you posted involve trials. I’m a corporate lawyer not a litigator, and I focus on mutual funds and hedge funds. I hate litigation because I learned early on that judges are the most arrogant bastards on the planet and that all your brains and wit does not make a bit of difference to a judge who wants the case to have a certain outcome. Juries can be swayed, maybe, but a judge can’t.

    Granted, there’s no glory sitting in an office on the 43rd floor of my building at night reviewing a mutual fund document that no one in the world is going to actually read. But it pays the bills. And it’s better than supplicating to an arrogant judge who doesn’t deserve the least bit of real respect.

  7. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “And it’s better than supplicating to an arrogant judge who doesn’t deserve the least bit of real respect.”

    Come on Sydney, tell us what you really think of judges! 🙂 Judges come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve seen judges with bad cases of black robitis, who confuse themselves with God. I’ve also encountered judges who realize they are very fallible and perform their duties in an even-handed manner. Judges are humans like the rest of us, and we all know how cross-grained and onery many humans can be!

  8. Jay Anderson says:

    Here are some that should at least be honorable mentions (although I’d put them in the Top 10):

    “John Adams” (HBO)

    “Miracle on 34th Street” (the original, with Edmund Gwynn, John Payne, Maureen O’Hara, and Natalie Wood)

  9. Sydney Carton says:

    You’re right, they’re humans. But I lost all respect for the “judicial system” when that judge murdered Terri Schindler. Judges are just government bureaucrats and as a whole are institutionally incapable of humility. They’re also a great threat to freedom.

    I favor, as a policy matter, random and routine impeachment of judges. If they knew they’d be out of power at the slightest moment, they’d be less prone to arrogance.

  10. Donald R. McClarey says:

    “They’re also a great threat to freedom.”

    Rather like government in general, although that is not a good argument for no government. Judges provide an essential function to any society. The problem we have is that the legislature, the executive and the people have allowed courts to arrogate to themselves power well beyond what is healthy in a free society. The remedies are obvious. Only the will is lacking.

  11. T. Shaw says:

    How about the Top Ten Accountant movies?

    I’m selective. Don’t have time left to see movies I don’t care for. Only movie to see re: lawyers: “A Man for All Seasons.”

    St. Thomas More, pray for us.

    Imagine a world with no accountants . . .

  12. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Top Ten Accountant Movies? Not a chance, and here is the reason why:

  13. Great list, based on those I’ve seen. I’ll have to catch the ones I haven’t.

  14. Robert says:

    What about Al Pacino’s “I’m out of order? You’re out of order! This whole court is out of order!” I can’t even remember the movie lol. I just remember that scene 🙂

  15. T. Shaw says:

    Thanks, Mac.

    I feel much better.

    St. Thomas More, pray for us.

  16. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Al Pacino proving yet again that overacting is not a felony offense, but should be:

  17. Elaine Krewer says:

    Although it isn’t a movie, we can’t leave out the “Chewbacca Defense” episode of “South Park”, featuring the actual voice of OJ Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran:

    (Warning: some vulgar language)

  18. Robert says:

    Too Funny Don! Ans Elaine – although most of what South Park does is vile – they are very creative and funny sometimes… That was histerical 🙂

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