Lawyers – we’re everywhere, including in a number of classic and soon-to-be classic movies. Some of my favorite movies have given birth to great quotes. These are lines you can repeat to other people, lawyer or not, and have them get what you’re talking about. If you haven’t seen some of these movies, I recommend you stream or borrow them as soon as possible.
To Kill a Mockingbird
There are so many great things about the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, including this quote from attorney Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person . . . until you consider things from his point of view.” Finch is talking to Scout, his young daughter, but I think it sums up the theme of the movie perfectly.
A Few Good Men
When I mention the movie A Few Good Men to people, they automatically think of that famous courtroom scene with Jack Nicholson, in which he hollers “you can’t handle the truth” at Lt. Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. But my favorite quote from the movie is actually full of humor and shows that even in serious times, lawyers have a sense of humor. Before a court appearance, Lt. Kaffee says “don’t wear the perfume in court, it wrecks my concentration,” to which Demi Moore’s character, Lt. Cmdr Galloway replies, “really?” Kaffee is quick to correct himself, stating that he was talking about their assistant, Sam.
My Cousin Vinny
My Cousin Vinny, the 1992 movie about a newbie lawyer who needed to take the bar exam six times before passing it, makes me laugh. My favorite quote from the film is Vinny’s opening statement in the courtroom: “Uh. . . everything that guy just said is bull****. Thank you.” If only opening arguments could be that easy.
A Civil Action
In the film A Civil Action attorney Jan Schlichtmann, played by John Travolta, gives us this bit of bleak information: “The odds of a plaintiff’s lawyer winning in civil court are two to one against. Think about that for a second. Your odds of surviving a game of Russian roulette are better than winning a case at trial. 12 times better.” The film is based on a true story, and Travolta’s quote beautifully sums up the frustrations felt by the attorneys fighting for the rights of families during the trial.
Sure, some lawyers took offense at the way the Reese Witherspoon flick Legally Blonde portrayed law students as super serious and boring, but I thought the film was all in good fun. Although some of the legal arguments used by Witherspoon’s Elle Woods are over-the-top and probably wouldn’t work in the real court of law, on film the arguments are downright hilarious, such as her questioning of a witness that leads to the revelation of the real killer: “Exactly. Because isn’t the first cardinal rule of perm maintenance that you’re forbidden to wet your hair for at least 24 hours after getting a perm at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?”
The People vs. Larry Flint
As a lawyer, you don’t always have to agree with your client. Instead, it’s your job to protect their rights and defend them. In The People vs. Larry Flint, a film about the Hustler magazine publisher’s battle for free speech, Flint’s lawyer, Alan Isaacman, states plainly: “I’m not trying to convince you to like what Larry Flynt does. I don’t like what Larry Flynt does.” The quote hits the nail on the head. We don’t have to like what our clients do or might have done, but we have to defend them.
Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as the title character, is another based-on-a-true story law movie. In it, Brockovich is hired by an attorney, Ed Masey, after losing a personal injury lawsuit. She then plays a major role in winning a large sum in a lawsuit against an electric company that polluted the town’s water supply.
Throughout the film, the plucky Brockovich clashes with Masey, until the end when the two are happy to have won. Masey hands her a huge check and says, “Do they teach beauty queens to apologize? Because you suck at it!” His quote is reference to a question she asked him earlier: “do they teach lawyers to apologize? Because you suck at it!”
Inherit the Wind
The 1960 movie Inherit the Wind is one of the greats. Not just a great courtroom movie, but also a great film that explores the divide between religious belief and science. The themes of the movie are still relevant today. My favorite quote from it is “the Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” I think it sums up the way people tend to limit their thinking, often with negative effects.
Witness for the Prosecution
A film directed by Billy Wilder and written by Agatha Christie? Really, what more could you ask for? “Witness for the Prosecution” is full of intrigue and secrets. My favorite line from the film is spoken by Barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the attorney for the accused. After his client is found not guilty, he states “We’ve disposed of the gallows, but there’s still that banana peel somewhere.”
Yet another legal movie based on a real story (are you noticing a theme?), Philadelphia is the story of a gay man with AIDS who is fired by his law firm, out of fear that he’ll spread the disease to others in the firm. Andrew Beckett, the attorney with AIDs, is turned down by nine attorneys before finding Joe Miller, the one lawyer who will defend him. Beckett asks Miller, “what do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? . . . A good start.”
The late, great Paul Newman stars in The Verdict as an alcoholic lawyer given a case that he sees as his last chance. He’s about to agree to settle when he realizes going to court would be the right thing to do for his client and his career. My favorite quote from the movie comes as Newman’s character, Frank Galvin, is giving his final speech to the jury: “if we are to have faith in justice, we need only to believe in ourselves. And ACT with justice. See, I believe there is justice in our hearts.”
The Client isn’t based on a true story, but rather on a novel by lawyer turned writer John Grisham. 11-year-old Mark Sway witnesses the suicide of a mob attorney, after the attorney reveals some secret details to Sway. Sway hires Reggie Love, a lawyer to defend and protect him. In her negotiations with the US attorney, played by Tommy Lee Jones, Love, played by Susan Sarandon, asks to put Sway and his mother in Witness Protection, “with a fair income, and a nice little house. White, with a walk-in closet.” It’s a quote that sees a lawyer getting exactly what her clients need and want.
The Firm is another movie based on a Grisham novel. In the movie and book, Mitch McDeere takes his first job as an attorney at a law firm that is more than it seems. One of the best lines in the film is spoken by Mitch to his brother, Ray, who happens to be in jail: “Hey Ray, wouldn’t it be funny if I went to Harvard, you went to Jail and we both ended up surrounded by crooks.”
A Man for All Seasons
A Man for All Seasons is a historical movie about Sir Thomas More, the chancellor in England who stood against Henry VIII when the king wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In defense of his position, More tells the Duke of Norfolk, “And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
It’s not every day that a lawyer gets to do a complete song and dance routine in the courtroom. In the movie version of the musical Chicago, lawyer Billy Flynn, played by Richard Gere, gets to do just that. In his song, Flynn sings “Give ’em a show that’s so splendiferous, row after row will grow vociferous,” accurately summing up the way celebrity trials tend to lose focus on the actual law, instead focusing on the spectacle of the matter.
What are you favorite quotes from legal movies?