September 11, 2006

Viewer Discretion Advised

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Why does New Jersey have so many toxic waste dumps and D.C. so many lawyers? Simple, New Jersey had first pick. While lawyer-bashing is always fun, I thought I would write this column to appease my many friends who are stressing over the upcoming LSAT. As I started to think, there is actually a great deal of good flicks that pay homage to the legal profession. Anyway, for all of you who need a break from practicing logic problems (or you law school students who just need a break in general), here are my top five.

5. A Civil Action (1998)

This film provides a good warning to all promising lawyers. Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) is at the top of his game as a Boston attorney. He knows how to work the legal system, much to his personal advantage. However when he sees a potentially huge case he jumps at it, putting his firm and reputation at work. Jan states “Trials are a corruption of the entire process and only fools who have something to prove end up ensnared in them. Now when I say prove, I don’t mean about the case, I mean about themselves.” Here’s our chance to see him try to disprove his own advice.

4. Philadelphia (1993)

Director Jonathan Demme’s powerful human drama about promising lawyer, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and his fight to make a stand against his bigoted legal firm before he dies from AIDS is still a potent film almost 15 years after its debut. More stirring for me is the alternate plot of lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) who, by reluctantly taking Beckett’s case, transforms himself into a better, more understanding person.

3. The Paper Chase (1973)

Before you are a lawyer, you’re a law student. Focusing in on first-year Harvard Law student James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) and his interactions with the both feared and admired contracts professor, Charles W. Kingsfield (John Houseman), the movie shows the true crucible that is law school. Professor Kingsfield puts it best: “You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

O.K., I admit that this film isn’t so much about law, but Gregory Peck’s impassioned courtroom speech as Atticus Finch is so powerful, so gut-wrenching it is impossible to overlook on any list dedicated to courtroom drama. The terrible irony of the speech which honors the American system of justice, even though Atticus knows it will fail him, is the sort of strong, justified support of what is right that (we hope) draws people to the legal profession.

1. The Verdict (1982)

At The Verdict’s start, Frank Galvin (Newman) is not only a waste of a lawyer, but a waste of a man. He desperately goes from funeral home to funeral home seeking out desperate widows hoping to convince one of them to sue their insurance company only to fail and drink himself to sleep. When an old friend hands him an easy settlement case out of pity, Galvin realizes this may be his last opportunity to set things right in his life and decides to refuse the settlement and take the case to court. This is one of my favorite films of all time. I still don’t know why this film, which is truly one of the best of both director Sydney Lumet’s and actor Paul Newman’s careers, is somewhat forgotten. Not only is Newman excellent, but tour de force performances from James Mason and Charlotte Rampling top off this somewhat forgotten, modern classic.