My Favorite Realistic Lawyer Movies

By | July 30, 2014
George Clooney, Festival de Deauville press conference for Michael Clayton, September, 2007. (Photo attribution: "2007-Michael Clayton-George Clooney102824" by Vinya - travail personnel pour le site Deauville's Festival. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

George Clooney, Festival de Deauville press conference for Michael Clayton, September, 2007. (Photo attribution: “2007-Michael Clayton-George Clooney102824” by Vinya – travail personnel pour le site Deauville’s Festival. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Over the years I have watched quite a few lawyer or lawyer related movies.  Admittedly, there are quite a few I have not watched.  Usually, the ones I haven’t watched are because, upfront, I have decided, for one reason or another, that they are not going to be any good, mainly because my unrealistic meter has pegged out.  And some I have watched don’t make my list for the same reason.

Obfuscation through Delineation Lawyer Button by LZ Lark

For example, I did watch A Few Good Men.  However, what I did not like was what the general public seemed to love.  What is attractive to the general public may not be realistic to attorneys.  In the aforementioned movie, the key scene has Jack Nicholson virtually screaming at the witness he is examining,  “You can’t handle the truth.”  Judges do not let attorneys scream at witnesses in court, hostile witness or not.  And that type of statement would draw an objection which would be sustained as being argument and not a question.  But that quote became the catch phrase of the movie and the general public ate it up.   Judges in the state and municipal courts don’t allow that, and I know that in military courts, where trials are tightly controlled, it is just not going to happen either.  Flat, period, end of story.

Delineation through Obfuscation Attorney Button by LZ Lark

Quite a few of the lawyer movies I liked had legal business or an attorney story line as an ancillary matter in the movie, maybe just a few scenes.  But some of these have been perfect and make up my favorites.

  • Body Heat (1981) – William Hurt’s Ned Racine character was one of the smallest-time attorneys ever to grace the silver screen.  There are attorneys like Ned Racine everywhere, big city, small town, just scratching out a living.  One of the few times you will ever see The Rule Against Perpetuities discussed outside of law school or estate planning settings.  Ted Danson is great as a prosecutor.
  •  Breaker Morant (1980) – Jack Thompson plays a court-appointed military defense attorney in the Boer War in South Africa in the late 1890s.  His clients are skeptical at first, but watch him win them over with a few slick moves.  All the odds are stacked against this lawyer and his clients in this outstanding Australian film.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) – This has a hokey Hollywood plot, but the criminal law is real.  Actually delves into things like discovery, privilege, plea negotiations, and lots of other day to day criminal defense matters.  Watch how Matthew McConaughey’s character uses his investigator, played by a long-haired, William H. Macy.
  • A Civil Action (1998) –  John Travolta shows us the big-time plaintiff litigation game with all its pitfalls.  The expenses of plaintiff’s litigation have plaintiff’s attorneys walking a financial tightrope of disaster all of the time.
  • Shakedown (1988) – Peter Weller played a big city public defender.  Little things like walking through the metal detectors and talking with the deputies at court had the ring of truth.
  • Michael Clayton (2007) – George Clooney’s titular character could have ended up like Ned Racine above, but he had the street smarts a big firm wanted to use for its less than savory dealings.
  • To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) – Dean Stockwell is a smooth and well connected Los Angeles criminal defense attorney with very high fees for a cop in trouble.  His involvement can be direct or indirect, but you know he will stay above the fray .
  •   The Verdict (1982) – A snooty Boston judge tries to block and impede Paul Newman’s plaintiff’s attorney with a drinking problem at every turn.  Shows the downright hostility of clients taking umbrage and uncooperative witnesses.  Also shows the pitfalls of dealing with expert witnesses.
  • Reversal of Fortune (1990) – Ron Silver’s Alan Dershowitz in real-life story of Claus Von Bulow’s defense and appeals.  Shows brainstorming with law students at Harvard.  Fisher Stevens’ turn as a very greasy witness is, well, slippery.
  • Night and the City (1992) – Robert De Niro as another small-time attorney rivaling the above Ned Racine for ineptitude and pure bad luck.  However, he can be effective.  Learned his trade as a public defender and is handling plaintiff’s personal injury cases in the movie.  The first time I “watched” this movie, I actually just listened to it and was absolutely stunned at how hilariously low rent it was.
  • Philadelphia (1993) – Sadly had the ring of truth to it both in the big firm and with solo practitioner attorney, Denzel Washington.  The scenes of Tom Hanks and Washington in the law library with case reporter law books stacked high were very real.  That was kicking legal research old school.
  • Erin Brockovich (2000) – A great and very real, true-life, movie.  She was tremendously effective at what she did for the firm and their clients.  Needless to say, Julia Roberts was great in the title role.

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