The Best Legal Movies Every Law Student Should Watch
Kingsfield: “Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”
Hart: “You are a son of a bitch, Kingsfield!”
Kingsfield: “Mr. Hart! That is the most intelligent thing you’ve said today. You may take your seat.”
Ah, yes… The Paper Chase. If you’re an attorney over 50, you can probably recite half of the lines. For a generation, it epitomized the intense pressure for 1Ls to master heavy course loads and the Socratic Method. Who hasn’t felt that push-pull toward a distant teacher they desperately want to please? Name a law student who hasn’t been afraid to be called upon and exposed as inadequate. And what law student hasn’t endured backbiting study partners or deteriorating relationships? Whether you cope by barfing into a bucket or simply quitting, The Paper Chase is a timeless reminder that it’s learning and endurance—not grades—that ultimately determine if you’re successful.
Of course, there are plenty of movies that capture the idealism, absurdities, and trade-offs inherent to practicing law. In A Few Good Men, a lawyer exposes high level corruption, yet must accept his client’s responsibility for carrying out a crime. In Legally Blonde, a student evolves from a naive sorority girl to a woman with a seasoned legal mind. In To Kill a Mockingbird, a lawyer battles institutional inequality, eventually learning that justice isn’t always dispensed through the law. Sure, lawyers are the butt of many jokes, but they also represent our deepest aspirations and ambiguities.
This week, lawschooli released its list of the best legal movies. While the criteria are vague, it’d be hard to argue with any of these choices. For starters, here are the law school picks:
- Legally Blonde
- The Paper Chase
And what about movies depicting the legal profession? Five more must-see movies:
- My Cousin Vinny
- A Few Good Men
- Michael Clayton
- The Verdict
- To Kill a Mocking Bird
However, this list seems anathema to John Gresham adaptations (or any film starring Matthew McConaughey). So what movies are missing from this list? Here are a few glaring omissions (barring Gresham and McConaughey):
- Love Story: A wealthy jock falls for an outspoken intellectual, and they struggle through family condemnation, law school, poverty, and impotence to stay together. Alas, disease eventually tears them apart. But with tragedy comes wisdom: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
- Erin Brockovich: Sure, it was a Julia Roberts vehicle, but it includes two key lessons: 1) Law isn’t always practiced in the courts (or even by lawyers) and 2) You get further by listening and empathizing than by questioning and patronizing.
- American Gangster: Looking for a flick on how to build a case from the ground up? Look no further than Ridley Scott’s real life cat-and-mouse between heroin baron Frank Lucas and cop-turned-lawyer Richie Roberts. Also looking for an example of truth being stranger than fiction? Lucas eventually hires Roberts as counsel after his incarceration.
- Philadelphia: A law firm fires an attorney because he contracts the AIDS virus? No firm would be stupid enough to pull that stunt, right? Sure, the film was pedantic, but it had Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and a score from Bruce Springsteen. What else does it need?
- Kramer vs. Kramer: Want to scar a young child? Let him watch this flick. Trust me, I know. If you’re a legal idealist, skip this flick. Everyone plays dirty. That said, the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep are a reminder that the law is about people—and the decisions rendered have life-changing consequences.
Which films would you add to the list?