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Top 5 movies about the legal profession

On Behalf of | Sep 21, 2021 | Firm News

A legal education ain’t cheap.

Indiana Resident tuition at the IU-McKinney School of Law is about $31,000/yr. Non-Resident tuition is about $51,000/yr. If you want some of that legal education for a fraction of the price, you can do what everyone else seems to do and just load up your favorite streaming service and watch some of movies!

Here is our list of the Top 5 Movies about working in the law. What they are, what they got right, and what they got wrong.

#5 – A Few Good Men

What it’s about:  Two young Marines are on trial for the murder of one of their squad mates. Their lead defense counsel is a slick Navy defense attorney (Tom Cruise) who has a great reputation but has never seen the inside of a courtroom. He is assisted by another defense attorney (Demi Moore) who is as passionate as she is impractical. The movie comes to a climax in a great courtroom scene where a Marine Colonel (Jack Nicholson) admits to giving the order for the two defendants to haze the victim, accidentally resulting in his death.

What they got right:  The scenes where Tom Cruise is negotiating plea agreements are pretty accurate, although more informal than actual plea negotiations. As you’ll see is a trend on this list, it’s accurate that being a perceptive investigator, noticing the right things, and putting the puzzle pieces together is how you craft a strong and compelling case. The good relationship between the defense and the prosecutor (Kevin Bacon) is an accurate depiction of most relationships between lawyers. We have opposite interests/goals, but it’s important to maintain a good, professional, working relationship. A key accuracy at the end is where the defendants are found not guilty of the highest charge (murder) but still found guilty of a lesser charge (conduct unbecoming of a Marine). That’s still an unequivocal win for the defense, but sometimes you can win and still have a little bit of a loss.

What they got wrong:  The obvious mistake in this movie is Jack Nicholson’s character admitting to the crime while on the stand. Skilled questioning or not, I’ve never seen a witness pull a “Scooby Doo” style ending by confessing to a crime publicly like that. Although I’d sure love to someday. The bigger mistake, to me, is where there is three weeks between the arraignment (when charges are read and a plea is entered) and the trial. I understand this is military court and not a normal state court, but that is far too fast to be able to effectively prepare a defense for an offense as high as murder.

#4 – Legally Blonde

Blonde lawyer

What it’s about:  A bright, if superficial, sorority girl (Reese Witherspoon) decides to attend Harvard Law School to chase the man of her dreams (this is not recommended). She goes through the cliché first-year trials and tribulations but eventually finds herself on the trial team defending a woman accused of murdering her husband. Proving to be a talented litigator, she catches the true murderer in a lie on the witness stand and exonerates her client.

What they got right:  Fairly good depiction of law school. Professors are tough, fellow students are ruthless, and most people struggle to fit in and find their passion/calling. The trial scenes are comedic, but they certainly show the benefit personal experience has for an attorney. In particular, the final “gotcha” moment pointing out the science of a hair perm to impeach the witness’s credibility. There’s a noticeable difference between watching an attorney that has “learned” a topic and one who “knows” a topic. The former makes them stronger at questioning a witness comfortably and that’s why good attorneys are curious and lifelong learners.

What they got wrong:  Legal or not, there’s just about no way a judge would EVER let a first-year law student lead the defense on a murder case, with a supervising attorney or not. Your first year of law school is dedicated almost solely to general legal principles and have nothing to do with the actual practice of law in any specific jurisdiction.

#3 – Erin Brockovich

What it’s about:  A single mother (Julia Roberts) starts working as a legal assistant for a personal injury firm in California. She gets involved in litigation against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) related to contamination of the groundwater in a small California town and the subsequent high incidence of cancer in the town’s residents. Through perseverance and some good luck from a cooperating former PG&E employee, the plaintiffs were able to secure over $330,000,000 in compensation from PG&E.

What they got right:  Based on a true story, this movie got a lot of things right. A Plaintiff’s Attorney has to be dogged in their pursuit of the truth, even if/when a defendant tries to conceal their wrongdoing. Attorneys also have to connect with their clients on a personal level and they have to care. That’s what makes the job worth doing. The scene about convincing the town to agree to a binding arbitration vs. committing to several years of litigation and appeals is a true depiction of the kinds of decisions lawyers and clients have to make about balancing the risk to both sides of the case and making the best decision for the clients’ long-term needs.

What they got wrong:  In spite of all of PG&E’s shenanigans depicted in the movie, Erin Brockovich employs some questionable methods in the movie as well. It’s also not a great idea to delegate the entire investigation of a case to your staff, effective as they may be. Attorneys are the ones with their law license on the line every time they work a case, and usually have more oversight over what’s going on than what is depicted. But the movie is named after her, so it makes sense.

#2 – The Rainmaker

What it’s about:  A recent law school graduate (Matt Damon) takes on an insurance bad faith claim against an unscrupulous health insurance company that is denying life saving treatment to a young man suffering from leukemia. Going up against a team of experienced, high priced, defense attorneys, Matt Damon has to learn as he goes and navigate the civil justice system. At the end of the movie, he secures a huge verdict of compensatory and punitive damages. The size of the verdict bankrupts the insurance company, which all but guarantees there will be no recovery for the family aside from the satisfaction of knowing the company is out of business.

What they got right:  Right out of the gate, the movie gets right that some insurance companies are just as slimy as can be. I often tell clients that insurance companies are for-profit companies and they make money by NOT paying benefits if they can. That’s what this movie is about. It also hits a lot of the right procedural notes by focusing on the discovery process, depositions, and pre-trial rulings by the judge. To be honest, more cases are won & lost in preparation than they are from having a thrilling “Perry Mason” moment spontaneously occur on the stand. Finally, the movie’s conclusion where the verdict bankrupts the company and there is no recovery by the family is sadly accurate from time to time. A giant verdict is only worth the paper it’s printed on unless the other party has the means to pay.

What they got wrong:  The biggest thing the movie got wrong is a small but important factor, funding. Litigation costs money. Depending on the number of experts needed, number of witnesses to be deposed, and the volume of documents to review, complex litigation can cost tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars. It is unlikely that a brand-new attorney with no funds could afford to complete the kind of litigation this movie depicted. Still, one of our favorites.

#1 – My Cousin Vinny

What it’s about:  Two New York City youths (or “utes”) get charged, in error, with a murder in a rural Alabama town. One of the boys turns to his cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci), a lawyer with no experience. It’s a classic fish out of water plot, but Vinny is able to win the case due to intuitive questioning of witnesses, picking at inconsistencies, and breaking the case open due to the expert mechanical knowledge of his girlfriend (Marisa Tomei).

What they got right:  It is 100% true that being an outsider in a particular court can be rough. Judges all run their courts differently and being completely foreign to a particular court can make things very difficult for an attorney. Most judges aren’t quite as antagonistic as in the film, but it can be rough. One of the most oddly accurate parts of the movie was how the public defender character was very articulate discussing the case privately, but fell apart when it was time to speak in court. Being a trial attorney is not just about knowing the law, it’s about being able to make an argument to strangers when the lights turn on and communicating effectively. It’s, honestly, not a skill that everyone has. The movie also did a good job of showing how a lawyer can disprove a witness’s testimony through observation and logic. Particularly in the final scene where Marisa Tomei’s character blows the case wide open with her testimony and the prosecution expert has to concede to her points.

What they got wrong:  The action happens far too quickly for a murder trial. These kinds of cases typically take a year at minimum. It’s also pretty unrealistic for one side to be able to have a surprise expert witness take the stand mid-trial. There’s an old saying in the law, “I love trying a case, but I hate trying a case twice.”  Procedural issues like that almost certainly guarantee an appeal and re-trial for the party that was disadvantaged. Despite what we see so often on TV & movies, the justice system HATES a trial by surprise.

 

This has been our list of five great legal movies to watch to learn about the law but being able to save yourself about $150k in the process. Even if you’ve seen every legal drama ever made, if you’re ever in need of legal advice, give us a call and we’ll get you an unbiased opinion of your case if we can, or get you referred to another lawyer if we can’t.

Stay safe out there!