The Top 5 Films About the Law

— by H.G. WATSON —

There’s a great novelty in seeing your chosen profession immortalized on the silver screen. For me, that’s the law. Until being a nerd starts paying, well, anything, I am in law school hoping to one day support myself by being a lawyer.

Luckily for me, there are tons of films that are about law and lawyers. Some good, some bad, many based on John Grisham novels. But the truly good law films are enjoyable for all cinemaphiles, not just those of us who care whether or not someone has breached their contract.

Toward that end, I picked five of my favorite law films for you to enjoy and discuss. Prepare your response to leave in the comments.

5. “The Paper Chase” — I made the mistake of watching James Bridges’ “The Paper Chase” the month before I started law school. In the film, first-year Harvard law student James Hart struggles to stand out amongst his brilliant classmates, all the while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Over the course of the year, he earns the ire of his terrifying contracts professor — played coldly by John Houseman in his most memorable screen role — which is not helped by the fact that Hart has decided to date the prof’s daughter. He also witnesses his fellow students fall by the wayside, unable to handle the pressures of Harvard Law. Suffice to say, I was shaking in my boots after viewing the film. But a year into law school, I can say that while school is not as scary as “the Paper Chase,” the film does have a great message for everyone: things that we feel are so important, like school and jobs, pale in comparison to the importance of love and life.

4. “Inherit the Wind” — Based on the Scopes Monkey Trial, this movie (adapted from a play by the same name) is about the trial of a young teacher who, contrary to the laws of the state of Tennessee, teaches the theory of evolution to his students. The town brings in famed religious orator Matthew Harrison Brady (played with great aplomb by Fredric March) to prosecute the young teacher and as soon as he shows up the whole town becomes a media circus. But the real star of the film is Spencer Tracy in one of his finest dramatic roles. Tracy plays famed lawyer Edmund Drummond, who decides to represent the teacher pro bono. The case represents what every true lawyer dreams to have the opportunity to do; defend a case that really means something and get to talk a lot in the courtroom. Spencer excels at these scenes, orating with a passion that would melt any jury. But, at its heart, “Inherit the Wind” is about the clash of free speech over the bigotry, progress over tradition. Though an older film, those themes resonate today given the current issues making their way through our courts.

3. “Legally Blonde” — If “The Paper Chase” is the terrifying horror film of law school movies, “Legally Blonde” is the fairy tale. It takes place in a magical world where raising your LSAT score 30 points to score in the 99th percentile is possible, and prestigious Boston law firms hire first-year students to work on complex cases. The story is simple. Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is a ditzy sorority girl who is dumped by her Harvard-bound boyfriend in favor of a more serious girl who will look appropriate on the arm of a future senator. Woods follows him to Harvard Law hoping to win him back, but discovers she’d much rather be a lawyer than married to one. And nabs the cute Luke Wilson to boot. Anyone who has been to law school knows “Legally Blonde” is a total farce, but it’s fun to believe in Elle Woods’ Cinderella story.

2. “Anatomy of a Murder” — Jimmy Stewart plays one of the most clever lawyers ever committed to film, Paul Biegler, in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder.” Stewart’s character is a small-town lawyer who is happily wasting his days away drawing up wills and real estate deals when a sensational murder case lands in his lap. He has to defend an accused murderer who claims he went temporarily insane when he found out his wife had been raped. This film does not give you any easy answers. Was the wife even raped? Did the man have a vendetta against his victim? Law rarely has an easy answer and when you have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt, there is always room for the question “What if?” Preminger explores these problems in a manner that is endlessly fascinating for the viewer.

1. “To Kill a Mockingbird” — It is admittedly cliché to pick the most famous law movie of all as the best one on this list. But if you were to ask a group of lawyers what fictional lawyer most inspires them, the answer would inevitably be Atticus Finch. Well regarded as one of cinema’s greatest characters, Atticus Finch is a truly modern hero. He never yells, he is rarely aggressive, and he isn’t particularly masculine. But his belief in his convictions and his pursuit of justice make him an admirable hero for the legal profession, and everyone else. But beyond that, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a great legal film in so many other ways. It’s a stark reminder that law is not just two people arguing it out over words on a piece of paper. Finch is not only fighting to save a man from the hangman’s noose, he is fighting for the rights of an entire group of people. The film shows that the battles in the courtroom have real, harrowing consequences for many people every day.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section.

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14 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. tex #

    Any list that omits A Few Good Men is just crap.

  2. 2

    I do agree with your number one pick and who wouldn’t. I have to think about all your other choices. Will either agree or disagree but then I will try to submit my own. What about looking further afield, in the foreign films for instance.

  3. 3

    Legally Bloinde,Nah.
    Rainmaker,or Ghosts of Mississippi, The Client,The Firm,Pelican Brief!??? Alot of films could’ve taken that spot.
    To Kill a Mockingbird definately, and Inherit the Wind. Other 3 spots Hmm? any of my film.
    Thnx for this site. I love movies!

  4. Deepdarkred #

    1.To kill a mocking bird
    3.Twelve angry men
    4.A few good men
    5.The Client

  5. 5

    Agreed with the #1! Also “Inherit the Wind” and “Anatomy of a Murder” are great law films.

    My favs:
    “To Kill a Mockingbird”
    “12 Angry Men” (jury)
    “Witness for the Prosecution”
    “Anatomy of a Murder”
    “Inherit the Wind”
    “The Verdict”

    Also “A Few Good Men”, “Reversal of Fortune” and “A Time to Kill” are better choices than “Legally Blonde” (IMHO). But I agree that Elle Woods is a wonderful character 🙂

    Awesome site and great post, thanks!

  6. Ted #

    My Cousin Vinny is, all kidding aside, a fantastic film about the law and crushes Legally Blonde, which is a waste of time.

    Good call on A Few Good Men (commenter 3, above), and although I doubt A Civil Action makes the top 5, it still beats Legally Blonde.

    If only Presumed Innocent were a better movie, or even half as good as the novel.

  7. Thomas Paine #

    My Cousin Vinny is much better than Legally Blonde, after all “it’s all about proper procedure.”

    My Cousin Vinny is the best film about the law.

  8. WG #

    The Scopes trial is more complex, of course, than what the movie suggests. William Jennings Bryan, the great commoner, on top of being a fundamentalist Protestant, was also a formidable advocate of women’s suffrage. The textbook used by John Scopes that was at issue had extensive discussion of racial hierarchy and eugenics.

    Speaking of good lawyerly movie, where’s My Cousin Vinny? What about A Man for All Seasons? What’s wrong with Sir Thomas More?

  9. Xenocrates #

    Grammar nazi here; it’s “Tracy,” not “Tracey.” Otherwise a fine article; I’ll second the suggestions for 12 Angry Men and A Few Good Men. How about A Soldier’s Story? Pretty good courtroom stuff there…and Caine Mutiny?? Course, these are all about military justice, but still…

  10. Jason #

    Legally Blonde does not belong up there… but the other 4 are solid picks. Four that could also be included (and I have heard mentioned already) are 12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, My Cousin Vinny, and The Verdict. Also, some that I can’t believe were overlooked and not even commented on:
    And Justice For All
    Presumed Innocent
    True Believer (definitely an under the radar one but James Woods at his overacting finest)

  11. 11

    oh boy..why is legally blonde on this list? I don’t consider it to be a film about law at all. a time to kill is one of my favourites of all time and matthew m. was stellar in it. I still get chills over his final deliberation. 12 angry men also immediately came to mind. it’s been awhile since I saw it but I was glued to the set when I did. I notice the majority of your picks are not newer films. brilliance doesn’t fade does it. now I’m intrigued about inherit the wind.


  12. 12

    I’d like to thank Jason for bringing up ‘…And Justice For All.’ What a batsh*t insane law picture.

  13. 13

    “12 Angry Men” is an essential one for this list.

  14. 14

    My favorite Law movie has got to be Runaway Jury simply for the Gene Hackman/Dustin Hoffman dynamic. It’s the 1st time they’d ever acted together.

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