As a lawyer, it’s always fascinating to see how my profession is portrayed on the big screen.
So often, the characters are way overblown; caricatures of the reality. Unfortunately for my wife, I usually end up talking back to the screen during these movies, telling the lawyer that he or she has it all wrong…
It’s all in fun though, and while the characterizations of lawyers in some flicks doesn’t really do us justice, there’s a grain of truth in almost all of them that makes them believable. So without further ado, here are my top five favourite legal eagle movies of all time:
Number 5—The Rainmaker
Newby lawyer Rudy Baylor (played by Matt Damon) and grizzly one-time insurance assessor turned paralegal Deck Shifflet (played by Danny De Vito) pair up to fight the big, bad insurance company in this 1997 flick.
Ask any personal injury lawyer and they’ll tell you that they love and hate this movie in equal measure.
Love, because Baylor is the good guy who is trying to do right by his client against the odds, playing up the whole ‘David vs Goliath’ metaphor.
Hate, because the portrayal of the personal injury lawyer as literally chasing ambulances by scoping cases in hospitals is shudder inducing. Plus the whole idea of this huge American style payout at the end of a grueling court battle is not how things go down in Canada. But who wouldn’t cheer for Matt Damon?
In this searing portrayal of how the law and health issues are so closely intertwined, Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) is a personal injury lawyer defending another lawyer, Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks), who was fired from his job when it was discovered he had AIDS.
This 1993 Oscar winning movie was the first hit to really deal with the AIDS crisis and, from that point of view, was important.
What’s more interesting is to watch Joe Miller’s transformation from the homophobic lawyer to compassionate defender of Andrew’s rights. Have kleenex handy if you’re going to watch this one.
Number 3—Erin Brockovich
Julia Roberts portrays the real life of Erin Brockovich, a single mom who was on the edge of down and out but for her intelligence and energetic attitude.
She convinces her employer Ed Masry (played by the incomparable Albert Finney) to go after Pacific Gas & Electric for dumping toxic chromium into the local water source, which was killing the residents of the local town of Hinkley.
Erin is the anti-image of the lawyer stereotype: she wears short skirts, gives a ton of attitude (and swears like a sailor), and you root for her the whole way along. This case is another example of a huge American success and payout that is one in a million, but it tends to sway people into thinking that this is what personal injury law is all about: big bucks and big wins.
Interestingly, the real Erin Brockovich has stated that the movie is 98% accurate, with some minor changes for the sake of poetic license. Watch this one if you love a good good vs evil story, or as they say in the movie:
Erin Brockovich: Kind of like David and what’s-his-name.
Ed Masry: It’s kind of like David and what’s-his-name’s whole $&%&# family.
Number 2—A Few Good Men
“I want the truth!”
“You can’t handle the truth!”
Truer words have never been spoken.
The court scene drama, where these words are hurled, is the absolute stunning conclusion to this 1992 movie.
Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) goes up against Colonel Jessup (played by Jack Nicholson) to prove that two low level marines were not guilty in a case of hazing gone wrong, where the victim ultimately died.
Kaffee, who had never stepped into a courtroom before that case, preferring to settle out of court, is out of his depth. But he’s smart, and he’s got two very resourceful people helping him.
The film is actually a great testament to the fact that most cases aren’t won solely by the lead lawyer but by a team of people working together.
Number 1—To Kill A Mockingbird
Who doesn’t want Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck) to be their dad after seeing this movie?
He is balanced, calm, fair minded and brilliant. He believes in the law and he believes that it will prevail no matter what the circumstances are.
In this case, Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama,1933.
The racial tensions abound but that doesn’t faze Finch, who has the courage of his convictions.
Harper Lee’s novel won the Pulitzer, and so often, the movie made from an award-winning book is a let down, but not in this case. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch and his character is one that sets a standard for moral fortitude in the legal profession that every lawyer aspires to, at one time or another.
So, while you’re busy streaming these movies this weekend, or looking for them at the local library, just remember: they’re movies.
They weave great stories but the day to day reality for lawyers isn’t all about prestige and drama. It’s a lot about being there for our clients when they need us most. It’s not always glorious but it’s definitely fulfilling.