Everybody hates lawyers, but we all love a good lawyer movie. From hilarious spoofs to deadly serious morality plays, lawyer movies offer the full range of theatricality, complete with dozens of predictable courtroom scenes.
Whether you feel a need for justice or for laughs, take these ten movies for a stream—but remember, past results do not guarantee future performance.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei descend on rural Alabama in this riotously funny remake of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The pair, who are engaged to be married, are summoned to defend a cousin and his friend who mistakenly confesses to murdering a convenience store clerk. Everything from grits-cooking to car repair gets covered in this hilarious classic of legal comedy.
A Few Good Men (1992)
If you like your law a little more serious, you can stay in 1992 and flip over to this classic Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson drama about crimes committed at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. No, not those crimes—more of the garden variety killing-your-own-men kind of deal. Cruise and Demi Moore play Judge Advocate General lawyers sent to defend the two young Marines set up to take the fall for some internal discipline gone wrong, while Christian Slater leads the prosecution. Jack Nicholson as commanding officer delivers one of his most famous monologues: “You can’t handle the truth!” We can be the judge of that.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Julia Roberts won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Erin Brockovich, the based-on-a-true-story movie where she plays a former client who convinces her lawyer (the late, great Albert Finney) to hire her as an assistant. The two team up to take on Pacific Gas & Electric, holding them accountable for poisoning an eastern California town’s groundwater with hexavalent chromium. The real lawsuit led to over $300 million in liability for the company, and the film won Roberts an Academy Award for Best Actress.
12 Angry Men (1957)
A gripping view inside a jury box—all men, all white, all angry—as they decide the fate of an accused murderer. Henry Fonda takes the lead as the skeptic of the jury, slowly convincing his eleven mates that the simple explanation of the case might not be correct. While the film feels outdated and idealistic in its view of justice, director Sidney Lumet (who shows up again later down this list) forged a classic film that has appeared on many best-of lists. 12 Angry Men is now a relic of 1950s Hollywood as much as 1950s justice, but it’s still compelling to watch.
And Justice For All (1979)
“The whole trial is out of order!” Here we have a young Al Pacino delivering some of his most impassioned theatrical monologues—and that’s just his opening statement. He’s asked to defend a corrupt judge, and he just can’t bring himself to do it, regardless of what legal ethics require. Pacino won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Pull up this film and find out why.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Al Pacino works for a different team in this over-the-top examination of big money legal defense firms. Keanu Reeves starts off as a simple country lawyer in Florida with a properly God-fearing mother (Judith Ivey) and dutiful wife (Charlize Theron). After a successful case, Reeves soon finds himself working for a major New York City law firm led by Pacino, who plays the satanic John Milton—after all, the author of Paradise Lost was “of the Devil’s party” according to William Blake. Milton leads the most deliciously evil law firm in New York, complete with rooms full of paper shredders and a spacious penthouse managing partner’s office.
As Milton says, “God likes to watch.” So do we.
The Verdict (1982)
Cinema royalty headline this classic film. Paul Newman plays a drunk, washed-up lawyer in this riveting drama written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet. For high cinema, The Verdict is the lawyer movie to watch first. Like many of the films on this list, Newman starts off jaded and hungry for money, but ends up fulfilling his duty to justice—while still making a few bucks along the way. With a sparkling script featuring the most judicially eyebrow-raising moments imaginable, you can’t go wrong with this one.
Michael Clayton (2007)
One of the most realistic films on this list, Michael Clayton examines the underbelly of corporate litigation. George Clooney plays the eponymous fixer who does a little of everything for his powerful-but-precarious law firm. He’s the guy you buy off, not the one you kill—unless you’re an unscrupulous general counsel of an agriculture conglomerate (Tilda Swinton) who makes poor decisions about case management. Watch Michael Clayton if you want a lightly-fictionalized view of high-stakes civil defense in all its lack of glory, complete with back-room poker games, child custody swaps, hired goons, and impulsive purchases of fresh-baked bread.
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Matthew McConaughey does things a little differently in this offbeat legal film with a heart even bigger than its titular 1987 Lincoln Town Car. The Lincoln is his legal office, and he brings justice to the streets of Los Angeles, defending low-level criminal defendants—with the occasional help of a sympathetic biker gang. Marisa Tomei makes another appearance as his prosecutor-ex-wife who both approves and disapproves. If you’re sick of watching lawyers tangled up with giant corporations, this is the one to watch.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Nothing tops making fun of Harvard Law School, and Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) aces her exams as the seemingly out-of-place matriculant of Legally Blonde. What starts as a way to spite an ex-lover turns into a burgeoning legal career and eventual film franchise. Other lists will tell you to watch The Paper Chase, an insufferable bore that older lawyers pretend to like because they were traumatized by their professors. Elle Woods has the better view of life at Harvard Law School: “What? Like, it’s hard?”