These films were chosen for their realism, social impact, and entertainment value. If you haven’t seen these then, my friend, you’re missing out- especially if you’re looking for films about the Law. The genre is expansive, but we’re looking for the ten best. Let’s begin! Here are my picks for…
The Top Ten Best Lawyer Movies Of All Time!
10: Devil’s Advocate
This mystery-thriller directed by Taylor Hackford follows Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), a young criminal defense lawyer who has never lost a case, as he is brought into the fold of a massively successful New York firm, headed by John Milton, (played by Al Pacino,) It examines the pressures of success for an Attorney, and the problems of a system built on competitive debate to determine Justice. Pacino offers up a masterful performance full of humor, promise, and menace; while Charlize Theron’s empathic performance as Mary Anne Lomax hi-lights the importance of human connection, even for lawyers. Especially for lawyers.
9: To Kill A Mockingbird
Since its premiere in 1960, Gregory Peck’s iconic performance as Atticus Finch has been what drives many youths to sacrifice years of their lives to college and become lawyers themselves. A story about injustice, racial inequality, and standing for what’s right even if it means standing alone, To Kill A Mockingbird deals with issues that the American people continue to wrestle with today. While the Pulitzer winning book of the same name by Harper Lee came first, the film stands on its own. Though the closing argument from Finch, unambiguously stating the moral of the story, sounds heavy-handed today, it’s had an undeniable, lasting social impact within and without the legal profession. It also shows procedure, and how arguments & evidence are used to structure a case- or to take one apart.
8: My Cousin Vinny
In addition to a very realistic look at how a criminal case actually operates, this film is hysterically funny. Joe Pesci’s portrayal of a street savvy attorney learning courtroom etiquette by trial and error (no pun intended) & applying legal principals in the streets and bars of small town America has a singular energy which separates it from Pesci’s other roles, and the other outstanding films on this list. While Director Jonathan Lynn, (a lawyer himself with a degree from Cambridge), made some deviations from procedure for comedy, the legal terms & procedures were kept as accurate as possible. It’s also an unique film, in that it has no villan- the Justice System itself, which has falsely accused Vinny’s clients, is the only major threat in the story. Most experienced attorneys can’t help but smile just at the mention of the title, because they see a younger version of themselves in Vinny Gambini.
7:A Few Good Men
This film follows military law, and tells a story of two young men accused of murder, while they maintain that they were only following orders. It also follows a gifted young lawyer who excels at making plea deals, and who disagrees with his clients about what’s in their best interests. With career-defining performances from Tom Cruise, Demi Moore & Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men manages to maintain the difficult balancing act between technical accuracy and entertainment. It is also one of the greatest examples in cinema of an attorney getting a witness to crack under oath that countermands their previous statements & testimony. Jack Nicholson’s explosive line, “You can’t handle the truth!” Continues to echo across popular culture today, but this title is #7 on our list because it shows how clients that insist on their innocence, and a lawyer who can get them a lighter sentence if they compromise find themselves at cross purposes, but the client’s wishes always come first.
6: 12 Angry Men
Written by Reginald Rose & directed by Sidney Lumet in 1957, this is less a lawyer movie and more a juror movie. It follows the legal process starting where the attorneys leave off, and explores how a jury deliberates on a case and reaches a consensus. Henry Fonda plays one of the only characters referenced by name and represents the voice of reason, who recognizes the value of the accused’s rights. The simple fact of jury trials is that everyone selected brings their own emotional baggage and biases into the courtroom. The film is the second-oldest to appear on this list, but retains a timeless quality, partly due to the emotional foundation of the story & partly because nearly the entire film takes place in a single room that hasn’t changed since the film premiered. Its unique perspective on the Justice System, use of context to condense storytelling, and steadily increasing dramatic tension make it a truly great lawyer film, even though no lawyers appear in it.
5: Erin Brockovich
This film is unusual in that it focuses on arguably the least interesting aspect of the Law in film- the paperwork. Julia Roberts won many awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performance as Erin Brockovich. Early on, it shows how important decorum is in court, and throughout the length of the film Erin is looking for documents to support her claim and interacting with the people who make up the community. She eventually unifies those people into plaintiffs who bring a class action lawsuit against a dishonest corporation that is knowingly making them sick. Few films capture so well the David-and-Goliath way one person can stand up against many and achieve justice in court, even when the odds seem to be against them.
4: The People Vs Lary Flynt
This film follows the true story of Lary Flynt’s childhood and professional career, which was fraught with legal turmoil. Flynt is a pornographer, publisher, and free speech advocate who makes a cameo appearance as Judge Morrissey in the film. Woody Harrelson acts effortlessly in the title role, and portrays the shocking antics that Flynt brought to the floor of the US Supreme Court as he stretched, broke, and helped define the limits of what can legally be said in America. The story is enriched by the arcs of all the main characters, but especially in Flynt himself as he grows older, makes mistakes, learns from some, and repeats others. It shows how a legal battle can stretch on for years or even decades, as decisions are reviewed, overturned, and society reacts to the choices made by the highest court in the land.
3: Miracle on 34th street
Though it won 5 Academy Awards when it was released in 1947, most people think of Miracle on 34th street as a Christmas classic, not as a lawyer film. It starts out following a kind hearted, honest-to-a-fault department store Santa who insists he is the one and only real Santa Claus. The story becomes a courtroom piece when Kris Kringle hits his store manager on the head with an umbrella & is accused of being mentally unstable. The train of logic that the defense employs is a great example of how a case is structured, but the real way that this story stands out as a legal piece is how the client, Kris Kringle, changes his mind time and again about what’s in his best interest, and those decisions affect his behavior, living situation, and how his case plays out.
2: …And Justice For All
This classic is considered a drama because of the seriousness of the issues it tackles, but director Norman Jewison does not let that depth weigh the film down. It’s a beautiful piece in part because of the vein of humor that runs through nearly every scene. Vignettes that hint at other cases in court and outstanding camerawork combine together to convey the sense of extreme hustle that defines most lawyers’ lives. It’s also one of the first American films to include a transsexual as anything other than comedy relief. With a focus on their impact on clients’ lives and the ennui that comes from years in the law profession, …And Justice For All is one of the most entertaining and insightful films in its genre. And Arthur Kirkland, in an Oscar winning performance by Al Pacino, is so soulful and accessible to the audience that they can’t help but be swept up in the story.
1: The Verdict
“I got you a good case, it’s a moneymaker. You do it right and it will take care of you,” so says Frank’s friend and mentor Mickey to a hungover, broke, miserable, unsuccessful lawyer as the story begins. Paul Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin is one of the finest in his prolific career, and movie examines a case from multiple perspectives. It’s a terrific example of how perception of a case’s value may vary wildly depending upon who is considering it, of the pre-trial process, of witness preparation, and more. All of the acting is first-class, and the underdog story of a disgraced lawyer fighting to win the most he can for his clients and to redeem himself is very compelling. Frank also takes time to philosophize on legal principal, and discuss what he loves about the Law in ways that stick with you long after the credits have rolled. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and is my pick for the #1 lawyer film of all time because it’s extremely well written and acted, it’s gritty and accurate, but still examines the law in an almost romantically optimistic light, against all odds.
-Written by D.M. Eaton