The Best Depictions of Lawyers in Movies and TV

Film reel with clapboard

For those in a specialized profession, there’s almost nothing more satisfying than pointing out when movies and TV got it all wrong.

You’re trying to enjoy CSI, but your cop friend won’t shut up about how Nick Stokes would actually break his knee trying to kick in a door the way he does. And we know that no one would ever get any work done with the amount of frantic hall-walking they do in The West Wing, but it looks cool.

Hollywood usually takes liberties for the sake of entertainment—as a detective, for example, Batman’s evidence collection and preservation method leaves something to be desired—but sometimes they manage to impress the profession they’re portraying.

Few jobs are featured more prominently on big and small screens than that of the lawyer. So we reached out on Facebook and we also consulted some of the J.D.s in the WSBA offices to learn straight from the source about the greatest and most ghastly fictional lawyerings.

What follows is a non-exhaustive list of the best depictions of lawyers and the law.

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Starring Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes)

Not every strong depiction of a lawyer comes down to fine details, proper procedures, and all the minutia of the job itself. A good way to connect with lawyers is to tap into that part of them that wanted to undergo the grueling slog of law school in the first place, and keeps them inspired to continue doing the work day after day.

A great fictionalized lawyer can inspire future lawyers and remind real-world lawyers why they do what they do. And there are few more iconic on-screen lawyers than Atticus Finch defending someone in a hostile environment because it’s the right thing to do.

“I’m just a paralegal,” one of our Facebook fans said, “but Atticus Finch sparked my love of the law and the Constitution.”

The Verdict, 1982, Starring Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden (90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes)

As one WSBA staffer perfectly encapsulated, this movie is great because:

“Paul Newman is an unethical, ambulance-chasing, alcoholic, depressed, deeply cynical wreck of a lawyer (but still gorgeous) who recognizes that the case of a lifetime has fallen into his lap and pulls it together to out-lawyer the top-tier, high-priced (and evil) lawyers on the other side to secure justice for his client. The greatest moment is the look on his face when the jury, during deliberations, sends a note out to the judge asking if they can award his client more money than she asked for.”

My Cousin Vinny, 1992, Starring Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, Ralph Macchio (86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes)

It’s not just the meme-worthy, iconic moments like Marisa Tomei’s Oscar-winning, Brooklyn-accented delivery of the two words “I’m positive”—there’s actually some damn fine lawyering going on in this early-90s classic.

My Cousin Vinny includes a fantastic expert-qualification riff between characters, as well as accurate representation of proper discovery procedure (admittedly, also some clear violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct). This movie even has been used by law school trial practice professors to illustrate impeaching a witness and laying the foundation for an expert witness.

The Lincoln Lawyer, 2011, Starring Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe (84 percent on Rotten Tomatoes)

All right, all right, all right—we’re not saying this is a beginning-to-end, 100 percent accurate portrayal, but at least according to Facebook, the first 30-40 minutes stay true to life.

Also, is it just us, or is Marisa Tomei the secret sauce for a good movie about lawyers?

Law & Order, 1990, Starring Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Dennis Farina (no score on Rotten Tomatoes)

Dun dun!

In the three decades since this iconic show first hit home televisions, it’s spawned approximately 52,000 spinoffs, but the OG L&O will forever hold a special spot in legal hearts for its well-paced, calm, and generally solid picture of legal professionals working a case. Even if you have quibbles with Law & Order’s courtroom depictions, you can’t deny its impact on real-world lawyering.

“It helped make me want to become a lawyer while in high school,” said one Facebook fan who nominated this one.

(Fun fact, before he became the 40th president, “The Gipper” starred in the 1953 western, Law and Order.)

The Rest of the Best

Here’s a quick-hitter list of other movies and shows that Washington legal professionals think hit the gavel on the block in depicting the life of a lawyer.

  • Erin Brockovich
  • Just Mercy
  • The Devil’s Advocate
  • Rounders
  • A Civil Action
  • Scent of a Woman
  • Marriage Story
  • Anatomy of Murder

By WSBA Staff