Must See Legal Movies

Some lighter fare, for summer’s dog days!

The legal movie arena is filled with courtroom dramas, action, thrillers and yes, some humor. What is portrayed on screen, however, isn’t always a reflection of what happens in real life. Here’s our list of the films you should see before going to law school.

Deliberation time. The prosecution and defense each have rested. The fate of the defendant is now in the hands of the jury. The suspense of a courtroom drama heightens. Guilty? Not guilty? That is the question.

Scenes like these have been the stuff of Hollywood drama as long as movies have had sound to convey them. And as in every genre, there are favorites beloved by all, including law professors.

“Law themes are deeply woven into different genres,�? said Cynthia Bond, clinical professor of lawyering skills at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

Bond teaches the course “Images of Law in Film,�? which examines representations of the law in film. She said her class subject offers an opportunity for students to get a break and to begin to contextualize their experience with this broader area of law in society.

“It’s fun, yet serious,�? she said. “Legal films frequently have the idea that the legal system itself is not enough to get justice, showing the preference for the hero figure.�?

Some movies, such as 2007’s “Michael Clayton,�? focus on the lawyer as the most powerful subject in the movie. In action movies like 2008’s “Dark Night,�? a vigilante hero is shown going against the system of rule.

Yet in spite of their teaching value, legal movies generally don’t give students an accurate view of life in the courtroom.

“Sometimes I do find these movies upsetting and annoying as a lawyer — when they make it seem like every average lawyer is corrupt,�? Bond said.

One such movie that Bond termed “inconceivable,�? and definitely plays into the Hollywood formulas, is 2003’s “Runaway Jury,�? starring John Cusack as a juror who manipulates a court trial.

The psychological impact of some of these films can become an inspiration for those going into law, and at the same time show the way things can be — the stress and frustration of handling clients and attention to detail in cases.

Here’s our list of the 10 best legal movies:

“To Kill a Mockingbird�? (1961)
This picture, for which Gregory Peck won Best Actor, is a moving story about right and wrong and an attorney who lives up to the highest ideals of his profession. It also offers an accurate portrayal of a rural courtroom in the Depression-era South.

“Twelve Angry Men�? (1957)
An in-depth exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt and realistic insights about how the jury system works from the perspective of those called upon to serve.

“Anatomy of a Murder�? (1959)
A dramatic, hard-edged trial movie replete with dedicated attorneys, a wise and reasonable judge and a surprise ending. Explores hard moral and legal questions, such as the “irresistible impulse�? defense.

Kramer vs. Kramer�? (1979)
Not only is this tear-jerker a Best Picture winner, it also illustrates the now largely defunct “tender years�? rule, which once almost guaranteed mothers custody of young children.

“Michael Clayton�? (2007)
George Clooney in one of his best and most critically acclaimed roles as a hot-shot lawyer who comes in to fix the mess made by Tom Wilkinson, a colleague who has a breakdown while representing a chemical company that he knows is guilty in a billion-dollar class action suit. The film shows the legal ethics dilemma some lawyers face in their responsibility to their clients and society.

“The Accused�? (1988)
Jodi Foster won an Oscar for her performance as a rape victim in this disturbing story based on actual events. This is one of the few movies to tackle “criminal solicitation,�? which is inciting another person to commit a crime.

“The Verdict�? (1982)
Here’s a great example of an attorney in a lot of trouble. Not only does Paul Newman’s character have an alcohol problem, but during the course of the film he also makes al kinds of mistakes that could get him disbarred. Among the no-nos: Newman finds his clients by handing out business cards at funerals. He also twice rejects a settlement offer without consulting his client.

“Inherit the Wind�? (1960)
This film is outstanding in its portrayal of one of the most famous and controversial trials in American history. It includes a good representation of the voir dire process and illustrates what can happen when a fair trial is impossible.

This article was authored by Michelle Weyenberg and was published in the 2010 Spring issue of preLaw Magazine. Click here for the digital edition of Spring 2010 preLaw Magazine or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school!