Top Lawyer Flicks: What The Docket learned from them
Editor’s Note: Members of The Docket committee submitted short reviews of (mostly) must-see movies with legal lessons. Is your favorite movie missing? If you have something to add, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Paper Chase" (1973)
When I was a first-year law student, a group of us rented this movie and watched it in the closed pub on campus while the pub manager poured free pitchers of beer. So, I’m a little biased when I say that every law student should watch this movie, at least to get a glimpse at what law school was and can occasionally still be like. Based on a 1970 novel by Harvard law graduate John Jay Osborn Jr., "The Paper Chase" stars Timothy Bottoms as Hart, a "one-l," and follows his first semester experiences, particularly with Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman, who won Best Supporting Actor for this role). The character of Kingsfield, who terrorized his contracts class with the Socratic Method, has become a classic reference among lawyers and many law students find a "Kingsfield" among their own professors. (Professor Ediberto Román, Torts, was never the same after I saw this movie.) While a bit dated, it is still a worthwhile watch, and anyone who ever has had a study partner suggest an 800-page outline knows exactly what I’m talking about.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, is perhaps the best-named lawyer in American movie history. This is the movie that first made me want to be a lawyer. I saw Gregory Peck and thought he was everything I wanted to be when I grew up —- strong-willed, articulate, willing to take on tough causes, unbiased and a great father. I never developed that booming baritone, though, and I still have work to do on the other stuff ....
"The Producers" (2005)
In "The Producers," Bloom says (clutching his blanket)
"I’m sorry ... I don’t like people touching my blue blanket. It’s not important. It’s a minor compulsion. I can deal with it if I want to. It’s just that I’ve had it ever since I was a baby and ... and ... I find it very comforting."
I have gotten to say, in open court, "it’s a minor compulsion, I can deal with it if I want to."
"The Verdict" (1982)
One sentence. "Your honor, with all due respect, if you are going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn’t lose it."
"My Cousin Vinny" (1992)
"My Cousin Vinny" is a prime example of the genre of childish, slapstick, predictable movies that I desperately try to avoid. Nonetheless, I was talked into seeing it one night when it first arrived in movie theaters. Not surprisingly, I found the movie as unfunny as I expected it to be. But, I found one riff particularly appalling — that of the stuttering and inept public defender. At the time the movie came out, I was serving as a deputy state public defender in Denver. Although the general public perceives public defenders as lower-quality lawyers than private practitioners, the Colorado public defenders office employs some of the best criminal lawyers in the state. I took offense at "My Cousin Vinny’s" insistence on perpetuating the stereotype of public defenders, and for this reason I rate it as one of my least favorite lawyer movies of all time.
"Mystery, Alaska" (1999)
The movie takes place in a tiny, remote village in Alaska where the main event each week in the winter is the Saturday hockey game on a frozen pond. The game is so important that the town council actually decides who gets to play and who doesn’t; being chosen to play in the Saturday game is the highest honor a young man from Mystery can receive. Through a variety of circumstances, a deal is struck to have the New York Rangers of the NHL come to Alaska to play the local Mystery team. Before the Ranger game, however, a big box store (like Wal-Mart) comes to town, to investigate building a store there. The store’s representative is shot by the town’s general store clerk, who happens to be Mystery’s top goal-scorer. The trial is hilarious because in this small town, the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and jurors all know each other intimately. The defense lawyer tries to argue that they can’t send the defendant to jail because they need him to play against the Rangers. The judge stops the defense lawyer from making this irrelevant argument, but the message gets through and the jury acquits. Not only does the jury acquit the general store clerk, it awards him $14,000 in damages (which the judge quickly disallows, as this was not a civil trial). The scene in which the jury foreperson delivers this verdict is priceless.
"Anatomy of a Murder" (1959)
"Anatomy of a Murder" stars Jimmy Stewart as a former DA in a small town in Minnesota. He gets appointed to represent a soldier accused of killing a bartender. A pre-Patton George C. Scott is the prosecutor, with a very military air about him. The highlight is when Jimmy Stewart starts tying flys for fishing during the prosecution’s examination of a witness. The movie is really good portrayal of small town solo practice. Watch the progression of the case from first meeting with the client in jail, through the trial preparation, and finally the trial. The movie culminates with a surprising ending.
"Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961)
I am guilty of recently having seen this movie. I caught this flick on TV late one weeknight. When it was over at 2 a.m., I felt I had been given a lesson in law, justice (blind or otherwise), the role and nature of lawyers, judges, advocacy, and how society can demand justice and neglect it in the face of other pressures. Based on the actual judges’ trial, the focus of the film is the trial of four judges (including Burt Lancaster and Werner Klemperer) by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal for war crimes. Overseen by Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), the film is an incredible tour-de-force of courtroom drama (the direct and cross-examination, and testimony of victims Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland are standouts) set in a society that was rapidly headed into the Cold War. It won two Academy Awards: Best Actor for Maximilian Schell as defense counsel Hans Rolfe; and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Another Medium. It was nominated for nine more, including Best Picture; Best Director (Stanley Kramer); Best Actor (Tracy); Best Supporting Actor (Clift); and Best Supporting Actress (Garland). Also starring Marlene Deitrich, Richard Widmark and a young William Shatner, this film remains a classic and I have no reservation in suggesting that this is a "must see" for attorneys and jurists.
The unlikely Richard Gere steals the show as flim-flam artist/lawyer Billy Flynn. If only I could sing and dance like that in court! The best number in the movie? Billy, in his thousand-dollar suit and spats, singing about how he doesn’t care about the money and fancy cars, "All I care about is love. ..."
"Reservoir Dogs" (1992)
Quentin Tarrantino’s first movie, "Reservoir Dogs," has provided me with many lines for CLEs that I have taught. For example, while sitting around a diner breakfast table, "Mr. Pink" (Steve Buscemi) explains why he never tips, "let me give you two words: learn to f---ing type!" Later in the movie, the late Lawrence Tierney provided me with my closing words for a lecture for the NORML National Legal Committee on ethics: "Now let’s get to work!"
"Twelve Angry Men" (1957)
There are few movies that show, in-depth, what the process of jury deliberation can entail. Take a murder trial; add Henry Fonda and character actors including Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden and Robert Webber; throw in some award-winning cinematography showing the claustrophobia that can result when 12 of your peers struggle with one another to determine guilt or innocence — and you get "Twelve Angry Men." Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Sidney Lumet), 12 unnamed men with their own history, beliefs and idiosyncrasies deliberate, debate and argue in a film that trial lawyers should consider a "must see." This movie also has been used in management training sessions, taught as literature, parodied, and discussed in-depth in the Michigan Law Review, which only goes to show how much this movie has become rooted into popular culture.