Think for a moment about the influence of popular culture informing your opinions about the legal system. Whether a consumer of film, television, radio, music or literature, you have likely been exposed to broad, thematic messages about law and justice.
These messages may be inspirational and enlightening, or distorted and inaccurate representations of our legal system. Legal professionals may be vilified or sainted, redeemed or doomed, but their portrayals often linger long after we leave the theater. Who can forget Jack Nicholson bellowing at Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” or Al Pacino verbally going off the rails in And Justice For All: “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” We love those climactic scenes; we assume that the such rants are routine, and that courtroom drama is a daily occurrence. Until we attend an actual trial!
In movies, it is difficult to capture the realities of the legal system, particularly with the limitations of a 90-minute film. The details, structure, and complexities of the process are not exactly riveting cinematic fare. Most films about litigation and the delivery of justice minimize the tedious aspects of trial preparation and procedure, substituting instead sensationalized trials with unexpected plot twists and unforgettable “gotcha” moments. That makes for good theater, but not good civic education. Lawyers have begun to realize that much of what the public believes about our system of justice is derived from motion pictures; expectations need to be adjusted, or more lawyers need to attend film school.
Despite these indictments of Hollywood, I cannot pan all legally-themed movies. My moral compass has been set by several epic films about the pursuit of justice. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird inspired me to become a lawyer (along with countless others, I’m sure). When I applied to law school, I was advised to watch The Paper Chase, a movie about a first-year Harvard law student intimidated by a stern professor and the Socratic method of teaching. It was instructive, and eerily similar to my first-year property class experience.
Full disclosure-movies have significantly influenced my notions of justice and the law (as well as my original career path). I’d like to share with you my list of favorite legal films, along with the American Bar Association Journal’s “25 Greatest Legal Movies” (ABA Journal, posted 8/1/2008 by Richard Brust). I expect comments if any of your favorites are missing!
My favorite legal movie list (no particular order):
To Kill a Mockingbird, Presumed Innocent, Primal Fear, Michael Clayton, Class Action, Philadelphia, Fracture, A Few Good Men, Defending Your Life, The Verdict, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Breaker Morant, 12 Angry Men, And Justice for All, Inherit the Wind, Kramer vs. Kramer, Liar, Liar, My Cousin Vinny, Jagged Edge, and all the Grisham adaptions: A Time to Kill, The Chamber, The Client, The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, The Runaway Jury
The ABA List (ranked by the best first)
To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, My Cousin Vinny, Anatomy of a Murder, Inherit the Wind, Witness for the Prosecution, Breaker Morant, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich, The Verdict, Presumed Innocent, Judgement at Nuremberg, A Man for All Seasons, A Few Good Men, Chicago, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Paper Chase, Reversal of Fortune, Compulsion, And Justice for All, In the Name of the Father, A Civil Action, Young Mr. Lincoln, Amistad, and Miracle on 34th Street
Consider replaying some of these legal classics on your favorite media device. Prepare to be inspired, transported and possibly duped! But when you need reliable, accurate information about the legal system in your area, search CourtReference.com. Select the Self Help and Legal Research or Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral categories for your particular state and county to find links to legal information, legal service providers, and frequently asked questions and answers about the legal process.