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A Guide to the Most Popular Lawyer Movies of All Time

by Scott Grabel

The courtroom tends to be dramatic and emotional for everyone, which is probably why Hollywood seems to enjoy creating films centered on it. There have been hundreds of legal movies over the years; some of which have been fairly accurate while others being much less so. Some films featuring lawyers as a hero or anti-hero are based on novels, with others featuring non-fictional, true-to-life cases. Check out some of the most popular legal movies to grace the screens:

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

This is considered to be the quintessential courtroom movie by which all other courtroom movies are judged, creating the formulas that many later movies tend to follow. A small-town lawyer, played by the iconic Jimmy Stewart, defends a military officer charged with murder. This movie is used as a vehicle to discuss a taboo topic in the 50s: rape. The victim had allegedly raped the officer's wife.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

It's hard to put into words how much this movie and the book it's adapted from has had an impact on American culture. Author Harper Lee wove an elegant story which director Robert Mulligan faithfully adapted. It's considered to be one of the greatest American films of all time by the American Film Institute. Touching on so many difficult topics including rape, racism, and human nature, this story, following the hero Atticus Finch, is a highly recommended watch or read.

A Few Good Men (1992)

This movie's iconic line - "You can't handle the truth!" - is embedded deep into pop culture. As far as legal movies go, it's unique; it examines the court martial process within the marines, rather than touching on public cases. Starring Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, and Demi Moore, this movie delves into the mystery of whether or not a murder was committed by soldiers acting under orders.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

In the same year as A Few Good Men was another excellent court case film, only this one was a comedy. Touching on cross-cultural stereotypes between rural southerners and urban northerners, My Cousin Vinny is an under-appreciated gem in which a loud-mouth lawyer defends "two yutes" accused of murder while traveling out of town, who happen to be his cousins. The interesting part of this movie is that the legal procedure is by-and-large portrayed accurately in the film, according to director Jonathan Lynn, who had studied law at Cambridge University.

Liar Liar (1997)

Another comedy, this is considered to be one of comedian Jim Carrey's best films. In it, a slick lawyer is magically forbidden to lie for 24 hours. This is due to his brokenhearted son's birthday wish. Though the film doesn't appear to have a high opinion of lawyers in general, and isn't necessarily accurate, the main character learns an important lesson and moves on to run his own law firm.

A Time to Kill (1996)

John Grisham has published many lawyer-centric novels that have become movies; all of which should star on this list, from The Pelican Brief to The Firm to Runaway Jury. This film is considered to be the best, though. The star-studded cast of Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, and Matthew McConaughey deliver an amazing performance. Race, murder, faith, and rape all come into play here in a tense and suspenseful film. It's a great movie, but it may be the least accurate on this list in terms of legality; it's fairly obvious that the man did commit the crime.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

Most of the legal movies on this list focus on murder trials and plots. This one focuses on a different topic: free speech and defamation. The publisher of Hustler magazine is legally attacked by essentially insulting Reverend Jerry Falwell. This doubles as a courtroom movie, as well as a biography of the interesting character Larry Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson, who constantly bucks heads with religious and legal institutions. In the end, Flynt makes an important stand for free speech, but the fight is not easy. It seems like a story too strange to be true, but, alas, it's based on real life!

Inherit the Wind (1960)

Though the movie has been accused of being a harshly inaccurate depiction of the trial and the town surrounding it, this film does a good job outlining an important trial in American history: the Scopes trial or "monkey" trial, in which the value of teaching evolution was questioned. Much of the testimony in the film is pulled straight from the transcript from 1925, however. The fictionalized versions of real, historical people attack each other with intense vitality, making it an essential watch for science and law students.

The Verdict (1982)

Actor Paul Newman portrays an alcoholic lawyer, Frank Galvin, as he takes on a seemingly impossible medical malpractice case against a large Catholic hospital. He wants to salvage his career and take a sizable settlement, but then becomes emotionally involved when he meets with the victim. Based on a novel by Barry Reed, this is a fictional story about general morality and the legal process. While it's praised by film critics, it is a bit inaccurate in terms of the legal process.

Honorable Mentions

There are so many different courtroom films over the years that have won the hearts of American audiences over the years. Here are a few other great films that didn't make the list: 12 Angry Men (1957), which features twelve jurors rather than lawyers; Chicago (2002), a raucous musical; Philadelphia (1993), depicting when a gay man was fired from a law firm essentially for having AIDS; Witness for the Prosecution (1957), based on an Agatha Christie hit; Amistad (1997), a historical piece which deals in the legality of a freed slave ship; The Devil's Advocate (1997), which couples spirituality and legality into a twisted, evil combination; The Social Network (2010), a story chronicling the broken friendships as a result of Mark Zuckerberg's billion-dollar legal issues; The Rainmaker (1997), in which a fresh-faced lawyer played by Matt Damon takes down a corrupt insurance company; and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which features one of the most famous international trials of all time. Again, all of these range in terms of accuracy of the legal process, with many of the historical works pulling from actual legal transcripts and many novel-based renditions taking liberties to make a moral statement. To learn more about these films, their court cases they represented or depicted, and their legal accuracy, use the resources below.

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