There’s nothing like a deadly legal drama to tap our most potent emotions, rally us for the “good fight” and simply entertain us as lawyers–particularly for those of us in small departments, whose lonelier grind tends to generate a higher craving for escapist legal entertainment and inspiration. So summon yourself to a recliner one of these hot, lazy summer days and enjoy one or more of my all-time fun favorites:
My Cousin Vinny (1992)–Enjoy it for the goofy, escapist humor alone. Joe Pesci (a lawyer who has never won a case) and Marisa Tomei (his sassy girlfriend) are two black-clad, thick-accented New “Yawkers” who trek down to Alabama to defend a murder case. As Tomei sarcastically opines, referring to Pesci’s glaring outsider status, “Oh yeah. You blend.”
The clever way in which Pesci obliterates witnesses’ credibility is wonderful entertainment. For example, he probes a proud Southerner about how long it takes to make grits to show that the witness’ timeline must be wrong.
But it’s Tomei who wins the day (and won an Oscar) as a star witness whose expert automotive knowledge proves that the defendants’ car could not have made the “burnt rubber” tire tracks at the murder scene.
The Lesson: Don’t pre-judge an expert witness by her tacky nails, big hair or “bridge-and-tunnel” accent.
12 Angry Men (1957)–The film opens on a slam-dunk case of “guilty” against a youth who allegedly stabbed his father.
Henry Fonda forces his fellow jurors to thoughtfully question and examine each piece of evidence. As Fonda’s character faces intense arguments and battles juror indifference, each supposedly rock-solid “fact” dissolves into a haze of doubt, and one by one, the jurors change their minds.
The Lesson: Don’t take things at face value. Probe and test every “fact” and be skeptical and thoughtful.
Primal Fear (1996)–Ed Norton plays a stuttering, simpleton altar boy with a split personality. Norton’s “bad half” butchers an Archbishop. Fame-hungry, egomaniacal lawyer Richard Gere rushes to champion this limelight defendant.
Norton’s flips from “good half” wimp to “bad half” testosterone-pumped psycho are spine-chilling. The final twist comes post-trial, when Gere realizes that his client’s split personality was all an act. There never was a “good” half–only the evil one.
The Lesson: Don’t rush into battle like a “white knight” drunk on self-righteousness because sometimes when you think you’re fighting for “good,” you end up championing evil.
Legally Blonde (2001)–Reese Witherspoon plays “Elle,” a fashion major who–despite her penchant for pink–gets herself into Harvard law school.
Interning at a prestigious firm, Elle helps to defend a murder case. The accused client is Elle’s former sorority sister (Ali Larter), young widow of the elderly victim. Larter has an ironclad alibi–liposuction–but she must guard this secret or face ruination as the icon of a hard-buns aerobics empire.
Elle uses her specialized knowledge of hair-perm science and ability to spot a gay witness (any man who recognizes “last season Prada shoes” must be gay) to show that key witnesses are lying, thus protecting her client’s freedom and secret.
The Lesson: Intimate knowledge of all sorts of facts–no matter how seemingly useless–can sometimes do more for a case than the best “lawyerly” talents.
A Time to Kill (1996)–A poor Southern-boy attorney takes on the controversial case of a black man who kills two white men after they rape and brutalize his young daughter. Matthew McConaughey’s powerful closing speech forces jurors to see the case on principles of humanity instead of their initially prejudiced perspectives.
The Lesson: Sometimes selling your vision is more important than mere facts and legal arguments.