In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, there’s a famous line: “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!” Setting aside all the great substantive work lawyers do, the world would be a far less entertaining place without us!
Those of us who practice law know just how much show business bumps up the drama for the sake of entertainment, or speeds along a case to get to the juicy bits…I’ve personally worked on cases that lasted 10 years without ever going to trial! Lawyer movies have made audiences laugh, cry, rage, and feel inspired. In today’s post, I’m taking a break from career advice to talk about some of my favorite lawyer movies to watch for any mood.
Lawyer Movies to Match Your Mood
When you want to remember why you became a lawyer:
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962):
Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird has inspired many a young reader to head to law school and was voted America’s Best Loved Novel in a survey done by PBS. I count it among my favorite books, and the movie is a rare example of a film being close to, if not as good as, the novel on which it was based. It’s both a coming-of-age story and a legal drama, exploring issues of race, prejudice, innocence, and evil. Gregory Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of perhaps the most famous fictional lawyer of all time, Atticus Finch.
12 ANGRY MEN (1957):
12 Angry Men tells the story of a jury trial and more specifically, the jury deliberations by a group of…yep, 12 men, asked to determine whether a young man is guilty of murdering his father. It’s a compelling drama and the jurors raise questions about eyewitness testimony and memory that the criminal justice system is still grappling with today.
When you want to laugh:
LEGALLY BLONDE (2001):
“What, like it’s hard?”
So says Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods, the protagonist of Legally Blonde, after she nails the LSAT and gets into Harvard Law School. This movie has memorable characters, quotable lines, and courtroom action while also touching on some of the darker sides of the profession, like elitism and sexism. The movie made buckets of money, led to a sequel and Broadway show, and a third film is currently in the works with a tentative release date of May 2022. No objection here!
When you want to feel inspired:
JUST MERCY (2019):
This movie is based on lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir of the same name. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. The movie covers one of Stevenson’s first cases, the wrongful conviction of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan, a black man convicted of murdering a white woman. Michael B. Jordan portrays Stevenson and Jamie Foxx plays McMillan.
The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was truly one-of-a-kind. Her list of achievements seems to be dwarfed only by the affection felt for her by her loved ones and coworkers. This 2018 documentary focuses not only on her many, many professional accomplishments but also on who she was as a person.
When you need a good cry:
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of a senior associate at a law firm in Philadelphia who filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired due to his sexuality and AIDS diagnosis. Denzel Washington plays his lawyer. Hanks’ character was fictional, but the filmmakers ran into legal trouble with the family of an attorney who sued Baker McKenzie for wrongful dismissal in one of the first AIDS discrimination cases.
When you feel like playing detective:
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957):
Agatha Christie knew how to write a mystery. This movie, based on her play by the same name, covers a trial of a man accused of murder. At the end of the movie, as the credits roll, a voiceover announces, “The management of this theater suggests that, for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” So, I’ll let you discover the rest for yourself.
When you want to stick it to the man:
MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007):
So, I’m not aware of any “fixers” at big law firms, in the vein of George Clooney’s Michael Clayton here, but this film does give a surprisingly realistic take on some aspects of life in a big law firm, namely the amount of work that it requires. (Fun fact: some conference room scenes were filmed in the offices of now defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP.) The movie is full of great performances, especially Tilda Swinton as inhouse counsel for a big bad corporation (and who won an Oscar for this role).
Warning: those of us who have spent time in a law firm may feel more than a touch of existential dread when one character analyses how many hours of his life he has spent working on one particularly awful case.
ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000):
Julia Roberts plays the title character, a real-life woman who fought against Pacific Gas and Electric Company for its role in contaminating groundwater in Hinkley, California, where residents experienced a host of respiratory and other illnesses. Despite not having a law degree (though she worked for a law firm at the time), Brockovich pieced together key details for the suit against PG&E. The real Brockovich remains an activist today.
Did I miss your favorite lawyer movies? Talk about them in the comments.
Looking for more lawyer content? Check out my career advice for young lawyers here.
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