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November 16, 2012


Friday 5: Great Courtroom Movie Scenes

by contributor

Philadelphia_imp.jpg on Wikimedia Commons. Used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 License.

Burned out? Bummed out? Second-guessing your decision to pursue a career in the law? I have the antidote. Below are 5 of the best courtroom scenes ever from Hollywood movies. You’ve probably seen them all before — but that’s because they’re classics. Never mind that they don’t much resemble what actually goes on in court. Nobody would watch a movie in which lawyers argue for a half-hour over whether the plaintiff’s actuary is qualified to give expert testimony regarding life expectancy, or whether evidence of the defendant’s subsequent remedial measures is admissible under ER 407.  No, let’s have some yelling and a plea for jurors to stand strong as the last bastion of justice in a world gone mad.

Warning: Some of the following contain language that is NSFW.  Watch at your own risk.

There are few more iconic scenes in any movie than this one from A Few Good Men, in which Jack Nicholson helpfully advises Tom Cruise of exactly what he cannot, in fact, handle.

OK, in Scent of a Woman Al Pacino doesn’t play a lawyer, and he delivers this speech at a prep school disciplinary hearing, not a trial.  But it’s all about standing up for what is right, one of the things members of our profession do every day.

In The Verdict, Paul Newman is a nearly washed-up trial lawyer with one last chance to resurrect his career.  To his dismay, he ends up in trial against James Mason’s Prince-of-Darkness defense lawyer.  Technically, Newman’s summation is about the worst you’ll ever see.  He says nothing about the substance of his case.  But his humble plea for simple justice will win you over.

In Philadelphia, Denzel Washington starts out as a Hollywood stereotype: the slick, self-interested trial lawyer. His character also happens to be homophobic. Reluctantly at first, he takes the case of a fellow lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who believes he was fired because his employer found out he had AIDS. Eventually, Washington sincerely goes to bat for Hanks. In this brief clip, Hanks explains in court what he loves about the law. If this doesn’t make you proud to be a lawyer and bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

Obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the all-time-classic lawyer stories and probably needs no introduction.  Following is the audio, with still photos, of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch pleading with the jury to give his client, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a fair shake.

Which iconic movie lawyer leaves you misty-eyed? Tell us in the comments.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 16 2012

    Terrific choices! But you really must have a “P.S.” to include My Cousin Vinny. It won’t make you misty-eyed, except through laughter. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Nov 16 2012

    A great movie, AZ! With that oversight and the absence of Legally Blond, we might have to convince the author to do round 2!

  3. Michael Heatherly
    Nov 16 2012

    I will get to work on a “funniest courtroom scenes.” I hope the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges appeared in court at some point.

  4. Nov 16 2012

    Nothing is as good as Atticus Finch tossing his client the baseball, catching it in his left hand because the right arm was injured, proving he couldnt use two hands to choke anyone.

    I literally grew up sitting on my fathers knee ( WSBA #91) and watching Perry Mason on television. Dad’s secretary of 27 years was a dead ringer for Della Street. If we only had the music at the firm…..but then that is only on TV or in the movies.

    I guess I can’t handle the truth.

  5. Sue Strachan
    Nov 19 2012

    For more great movie scenes and to finish up your required CLE credits attend “MOVIE MAGIC: How The Masters Try Cases” on December 12, 2012. Use this link to register for this popular WSBA-CLE seminar!

  6. Another Mike
    Dec 5 2012

    One of the greats was “Witness for the Prosecution”, 1957, starring Charles Laughton (as the crusty old English barrister), Tyrone Power as the dodgy defendant, and Marlene Dietrich as defendant’s even more dodgy wife. Defendant’s strategy (unknown to his lawyer) is for his wife to testify as the star “witness for the prosecution”, but to muck it up so thoroughly that he gets acquitted on reasonable doubt. Great British courtroom stuff, replete with innumerable “m’lords”, many twists and turns, and of course, the obligatory surprise ending. Great stuff.


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