Lawyers and Their Favorite Legal Films

Bruce Green has practiced law for more than 30 years in Huntsville, Texas.  He graduated from University of Texas Law School in 1978.

Mike Yawn: Bruce, what is your favorite movie about law?

Bruce Green:  I have to go with “The Verdict.”  The movie touches the heart of every lawyer who has ever been in private practice, capturing the anguish, scariness, and huge responsibility that comes with the job.  It also depicts how evil our unbridled corporate world can be.  We are what stands between the individual citizen and this oligarchical corporate structure that controls so much of the power in our society.

The Verdict, Starring Paul Newman

The Verdict, Starring Paul Newman

MY: If I recall correctly, the Catholic Church was part of that control in “The Verdict.”

BG: Of course it was, and I am a Catholic [laughs].  I was trying to skirt that.  But it shows what can happen when law protects insurance companies over the rights of citizens, and when the judiciary gets involved in unethical practices.

MY: It was directed by Sidney Lumet and stars James Mason, Charlotte Rampling, and, of course, Paul Newman.

BG: Yes, Newman’s performance was incredible.

MY: It’s worth noting that two members of “The Verdict’s” cast, Jack Warden and Edward Binns, were also in “12 Angry Men,” some 25 years earlier.

BG: That’s my third favorite legal film.  That’s an incredibly important film, because it shows what a jury is supposed to do.  People have to understand what “beyond a reasonable doubt means” and, quite frankly, many jurors don’t take this responsibility seriously.  It seems as though they would rather convict an innocent person than risk letting someone go who might be guilty.

MY: Well, you’ve mentioned your favorite and your third favorite, what’s in between?

BG: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s more than a legal film; it’s a wonderful, powerful, beautiful movie.  Gregory Peck is amazing.

MY: Well, you’ve put “The Verdict” ahead of two other great films, “12 Angry Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” so perhaps you can summarize why the public should see “The Verdict.”

BG: They should see it to better understand the legal process, to understand how difficult it is for an ordinary citizen to get justice in a system controlled by people with a lot of money, and to understand the role of the lawyer.  I think the fact that Paul Newman plays a down-on-his-luck, alcoho

lic lawyer makes the movie’s message even more poignant, stressing what some lawyers go through to find justice for an individual in this society.

Mike Park is a partner at the law firm of Park & Durham.  He graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law in 1976, and he has practiced law in Huntsville for more than three decades.

Mike Park

Mike Park

Mike Yawn: You are a lawyer who is also interested in film.  Tell us how those interests came about.

Mike Park: I’ve probably always been interested in both.  I played football in college, and after completing my eligibility, I took the LSAT, did well on it, and was accepted to law school.  Once I got into law school, I enjoyed it from both a practical and intellectual standpoints.  As for film, I love it as a medium.  I love old movies.  I subscribe to AMC, TCM, and I watch the classics when I can.

MY: Well, what would you say is your favorite legal film?

MP: Probably my favorite is the 1957 classic, “Witness for the Prosecution.”

MY: That was adapted from an Agatha Christie play, and filmed with Tyrone Power in the lead?

MP: Yes.  He was actually one of my favorite actors.  Of course, Marlene Dietrich plays his wife, and Charles Laughton is the lawyer, and he was good in anything he did.

Witness for the Prosecution

MY: If I recall correctly, the film hinges on—I don’t want to give too much away here—the constitutional protection against double jeopardy.

MP: It does hinge on double jeopardy, and it provides a very nice surprise ending.

MY: That film was directed by Billy Wilder, one of the greatest directors in film history.

MP: He was. “Sunset Boulevard” is a terrific movie, but many people aren’t familiar with it.  He also directed “The Lost Weekend,” which is another terrific film.

MY: Back to law films.  Are there any others, besides “Witness for the Prosecution,” that you think the public should see?

MP: I really enjoyed “The Verdict” with Paul Newman, although I thought that James Mason gave just as good of a performance as Newman.  I’d also like to mention “12 Angry Men,” which isn’t so much a courtroom drama, but shows the workings of the jury inside the jury room.

Movies have changed over the years, but I think that one reason older movies were so well done is that the studios had access to such good character actors.  In “12 Angry Men,” Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb were the protagonist and antagonist, respectively, but you also had E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, and Ed Begley.  Their roles were smaller, but they were great actors.

MY: You are clearly a lover of films, a love that started at an early age.  Can you leave us with a film you loved as a child that still holds up well?

MP: I think “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It had a great cast and the director, Frank Capra, did a lot of movies where people with strong core values play

Tracy Sorensen

Tracy Sorensen

ed central roles, and I thought it was one of his best.  I think it just gets better and more revered over time, and I think that’s true of all great films, legal or otherwise.

 Tracy Sorensen is a solo practitioner at the Law Office of Tracy Sorensen.  She graduated from South Texas College of Law in 2005 and has been practicing law in Huntsville since 2006.

Mike Yawn: Tell us your favorite legal film.

Tracy Sorensen: “The Rainmaker, by Francis Ford Coppola, although when I told my mother [Kathy Davis, from Point Blank] this fact, she said, “But I thought it was ‘Legally Blonde!’”

MY: That was originally a Grisham novel? “The Rainmaker,” I mean, not “Legally Blonde.”

TS: Correct.

MY: The film has a truly great cast.  Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Claire Danes, Roy Scheider, Virginia Madsen, and Dean Stockwell.

TS: And Danny DeVito!

MY: Well, tell us why it is your favorite legal film.

The Rainmaker

The Rainmaker

TS: It’s about a young lawyer, played by Damon, who doesn’t know what he’s doing when he starts out, but he overcomes challenges and wins.  He’s a lawyer that probably wasn’t at the top of his class coming out of law school, but he’s trying to make his way in the world, overcome his doubts, and be successful.

MY: Now, that film is about the young lawyer who takes on a giant insurance company, and I think Jon Voight is the opposing counsel. They certainly emphasize the difference in experience between Voight and Damon.

TS: Yes, they do a very good job of that.

MY: By the way, do you remember who makes a cameo in that film?

TS: Was it Randy Travis?

MY: Yes, for reasons I have forgotten, he leaps from the jury box and attacks Jon Voight [laughs].  For that reason alone it’s worth renting.

TS: I remember that.

MY: What do you think the public should come away with after watchingThe Rainmaker?”

TS: Well to paraphrase a sports movie, “Any Given Sunday,” anyone can win the day.  In “The Rainmaker,” the lawyer doesn’t make any money at all and chooses not to be a lawyer, but I think it’s important that it shows the little guy defeating the big guy, whether that’s going against a corporate giant or going against a twenty-year high-profile lawyer. The brand-new lawyer overcomes and wins for justice.

Aaron LeMay is the Controller for Sam Houston State University, where he has worked since 2011.  He graduated from the South Texas College of Law in 2010.

Aaron LeMay

Aaron LeMay

Mike Yawn: Your education, it seems, would give you a foundation for a lot of things and perhaps a unique perspective on film.  You have Bachelor’s Degree from Ouachita Baptist University in Biblical Languages and Accounting; a Master’s Degree in Education, specializing in Student Affairs and Administration at Baylor; and a law degree from South Texas College of Law. That may be the broadest set of degrees I’ve ever seen.

Aaron LeMay: Most people say it’s because I am indecisive, but I haven’t decided whether I agree with that…[laughs]

MY: What’s your favorite legal film?

AL:  “V for Vendetta.”

MY: That’s the most modern of the films that has been chosen thus far.  What is it about that film that makes it your favorite law-related movie?

AL: Well, I could have gone with more of a courtroom drama, but I like that this film addresses the role of government in individuals’ lives and the role of the individual in establishing and perpetuating the government and its laws.

MY: One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it involves an individual who uses terroristic tactics, which are generally regarded as illegitimate means of social change.  But he is using them against a totalitarian state.

V For Vendetta

V For Vendetta

AL: That’s one of the serious issues of the film.  We have a negative perception of vigilantes, but there is the question of a society that is so bad that a vigilante is almost a necessary catalyst for change and, by extension, improvement.  A lot of popular films, particularly of the action-hero variety, depict that right now.  Batman is a perfect example; he’s a complete vigilante.  From a more historical vantage point, you also have the leaders of the American Revolution.  They were working against the British government, serving as catalysts for change.  In either case, a person is being subversive to an existing order, serving as the engine for positive change in society.

MY: You mention the founding fathers and, of course, if the Revolution hadn’t been successful, they would have been hanged as traitors and gone down in history as such.

AL: Yes, to quote from a different movie, in the “Count of Monte Cristo,” Colonel Villefort says, “Treason is all a matter of dates.”  If the founding fathers would have lost the war, we would have had the same society we had before, which we viewed as an oppressive monarchy controlling what we believe is our freedom.

MY: One of the actors in “V for Vendetta” is John Hurt, who plays the dictator.  It is interesting that he was also in “1984,” another film warning of the dangers of totalitarianism.

AL: Yes, he was Adam Sutler in “V for Vendetta.”  You know, in the film Sutler begins blacklisting people who are associated with V, and that’s the sort of thing you would see in “1984.”  The government, in that case, is more involved with personal lives than the general protection of society.

MY: James McTeigue, the director, was the First Assistant Director on “The Matrix.”  There are some thematic similarities between these two films, and I would think that the people who like one would like the other.

AL: Well, that’s true for me.  I own and watch on a periodic basis “The Matrix.”  The sequels are less critically acclaimed, but they do continue the story of how the people emerge from a machine-driven oppressive society.  Neo, of course, is the catalyst for that change.  In a lot of ways he is portrayed as a Christ-like character who is the salvation of the people and the machines.

MY: And this may seem obvious now, but how do you think your broad educational background, particularly in the Humanities, has affected you?

AL: Well, for people with a background in Western philosophy or Biblical Studies or the Humanities, a lot of imagery and ideas stand out.  In the end of the “Matrix,” Neo is carried out by a machine, and he’s in a prostrate position.  It’s a position similar to that which Christ is believed to have been in when he died on the cross. That’s pretty apparent if you’ve studied that sort of thing.  But I think everyone brings their own experiences and backgrounds to film, and that’s one of the great things about the movies.

David Moorman is a partner at Haney and Moorman.  He has practiced law in Huntsville for 20 years, following his graduation from Baylor Law School in 1993.

David Moorman

David Moorman

Mike Yawn: David, what’s your favorite legal film?

David Moorman: “My Cousin Vinny.”

MY: Aha, Joe Pesci.  What is it about that film that prompts you to choose it?

DM: I like comedies, and I also think that it does a pretty good job of showing the trial process in a criminal case.  Obviously it’s a movie, and a comedy at that, but it addresses the process, people’s rights, and the penalties associated with certain charges.  It also shows that the process sometimes takes over at the expense of people who aren’t guilty.

MY: The movie involves a New York attorney trying his first case, and it’s in rural Alabama.  Can you describe how the film shows the importance of attorneys knowing the local culture?

DM: Right, the lawyer is from New York, and the trial is in rural Alabama, so he’s culturally a fish out of water.  Even in the same state, things can be different from county to county or from judge to judge within the same county.  It’s easier to make a blunder when you don’t know the local terrain.

MY: It’s also the attorney’s first court case.  What is that like?

DM: Not everything you learn in law school translates immediately to the courtroom.  Every case is different, and you see that even when you’ve been practicing for twenty years, but it’s particularly tough when you just come out of law school.  You come out with a lot of energy, but you are really wide-eyed, and there’s a steep learning curve.

My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny

MY: What does “My Cousin Vinny” tell the public about the legal system?

DM: Once the legal process gets into motion, particularly if the media rush to a decision, it’s hard to stop.  The case that comes to mind is the case of Richard Jewell, in Atlanta.  A network decided he was a “person of interest” in the Olympic bombing case in 1996, when, in fact, he was trying to help people on the ground during and after the bombing.  The charges, which had no basis in fact, ruined his life.  It took years for him to get his name cleared.  Even then, his name had been out there.  The “news” is on the front page; the retraction is on page three or otherwise buried in the newspaper.

The movie came out in 1992, when I was law school. But I saw it when we going through the courtroom procedures and doing practice court. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than twenty years.

MY: What other films might you recommend?

DM: “Witness for the Prosecution” is a classic with many twists to it, as well as a good illustration of classic themes: betrayal, a scorned lover, and retribution.  Also, “A Few Good Men.”  Sometimes as an attorney you have to take on unpopular clients to ensure that the system works for everyone, and sometimes that’s not understood by the public.

Nicholas Beaty is a solo practitioner at the Law Office of Nicholas C. Beaty.  He graduated from the South Texas College of Law in 2008 and has been practicing law in Huntsville since 2009. 

Nicholas Beaty

Nicholas Beaty

Mike Yawn: Are you a film buff or more of a casual fan?

Nicholas Beaty: I’m more than casual fan, but maybe not a true buff.  Frank Blazek, my former employer, is a true film buff—not to mention a brilliant legal mind.  He’s suggested many movies to me that I’ve enjoyed.

MY: What’s your favorite legal film?

NB:  “And Justice for All” with Al Pacino.  An attorney suggested it to me as I was starting law school, kind of a “what-are-you-getting-yourself-into” exploration.  Of course, it’s a movie, and you take it with a grain of salt, but I understood what he meant after I watched the movie.

MY: That was directed by Norman Jewison, who also did “In the Heat of the Night” and “Hurricane,” movies that explore injustice.  That’s a major theme of “And Justice for All,” too.

NB: It certainly is.  I appreciated the film more as I began to practice in the area of criminal defense.  You begin to realize that being an ethically sound individual does not necessarily produce the perception of being the best criminal defense attorney.  Doing what you think is right is not always in line with the rules of professional conduct, the rules of the court, the desires of your client, or what the state sees as justice.  They don’t always hold together.

MY: The film also has a good cast.  In addition to Pacino, there’s John Forsythe, Christine Lahti, and the seemingly ever-present Jack Warden.  Other than the cast, though, tell us why it is important for the public to see this film.

And Justice For All

And Justice For All

NB: For the non-legal community, it’s important to know that the system that regulates attorneys and the rules under which attorneys operate are just as imperfect as the system.  In the last scene of the movie, Pacino has been kicked out of the courtroom and will probably be disbarred.  He is thinking, “What did I just do?”  Lawyers face ethical dilemma regularly, and they can sometimes have adverse effects on our careers.

MY: Tracy Sorensen chose “The Rainmaker” as her favorite, and the lawyer protagonist in that film also faces dilemmas and opts to leave the profession, although not in the same dramatic fashion as Pacino. What are the stresses of the attorney’s life that might lead people to find other paths in life?

NB: You are dealing with people who are at the worst and most stressed-out emotional points in their lives, and you absorb some of those emotions as you represent them.  If you cannot deal with emotional swings, then law may not be for you.  It’s important to have the emotional resiliency to balance your emotions in the courtroom while also zealously representing your clients.

MY: What other legal films would you recommend to learn more about the field of law?

NB: Well, my other two favorites are “A Time to Kill” and “A Few Good Men,” the latter because I love Jack Nicholson and I was in the military for a few years.  Both of those are entertaining, but as far as learning about the legal system, I’d say, pick up a book and you’ll probably learn more about law than you would from a movie.

Frank Blazek is a partner with Smither, Martin, Henderson & Blazek law firm.  He graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1977, served as the Walker County District Attorney, and has practiced law in Huntsville for more than 30 years.

Frank Blazek

Frank Blazek

Mike Yawn: Tell us about how your love of law and film developed.

Frank Blazek: When I was an undergraduate, I took every course with the word “law” in it.  I didn’t know any lawyers, and I wanted to be a lawyer, so that’s how I learned about the legal profession.  But I also took some electives, and the course that probably shaped my life more than any other was my movie appreciation course.  I learned a little about appreciating movies, and that was as culturally enriching as anything I’ve ever done.

MY: Well, I am teaching that class in the fall.  I hope the students get as much out of as you did when you took it.  But it’s tough, most students are attracted to a narrow niche of films.

FB: Well, I understand that.  When I took the course, I knew what movies I liked: tough detective films, filled with action.  Don Siegel was my favorite director.  When our professor showed the first musical, I thought, “Am I going to have to sit here and watch these?”  But it turns out “Singing in the Rain” was just a wonderful experience.  Once I understood these things, I could appreciate them, comedies, musicals, fantasies, even foreign and silent films, things I hadn’t liked before.

MY: You didn’t mention legal films.  How about your favorite from that genre?

FB: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  It has, I think, the strongest character development of all the legal films I’ve seen.  Sometimes the impetus for changing people’s hearts comes from unanticipated sources.  There’s a scene in which an angry mob is outside the jail, waiting to attack and kill the accused.  The attorney, played by Gregory Peck, is outside the jail and his daughter approaches.  She recognizes one of the people in the mob, and she makes a friendly gesture to him.  This little act of humanity dispels the anger, and the crowd dissipates and goes away.  There are conflicting values in people, but people have good in them.  You have to find those values and connect to them.

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird

MY: You know, I had a chance to see Gregory Peck in the 1990s, and he indicated that Atticus Finch was his most important role.   What qualities do you think Finch embodied that attorneys should take to heart?

FB: He put his clients’ interests first.  He knew that you can’t always win, but that you had to present your best case—even when up against insurmountable odds.  He didn’t place money or fame or pride or any of those attributes ahead of his integrity.  He also had empathy, and I think a good lawyer has to have empathy for all those involved in litigation. Of course, you also need to go home at night and feel good about yourself and not be ashamed of what you have done during the day.  And I think Atticus could do that.

MY: That’s an answer that reflects a love of the film and law.  What are some other legal films worth seeing?

FB: “Anatomy of a Murder” is a great film, particularly for its realism.  The rulings of the judge and the courtroom dialogue are not as constructed or theatrical as in many other films.  Of course, what’s most realistic about the film is that the lawyer doesn’t get paid in the end. [laughs]

MY: You know the judge in “Anatomy of a Murder” was the counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings.

FB: That’s right!

MY: He famously asked Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?  At long last, have you no sense of decency?” (Youtube clip here).

FB: Another courtroom movie is “Inherit the Wind.”  The courtroom dialogue, the cross examination, was taken in part from the actual transcript of the trial.  The names were different, but everyone knew the lead lawyer was Clarence Darrow.  And then there’s Compulsion, based on the Leopold-Loeb case…

MY: Also featuring Clarence Darrow for the defense…

FB: Right.  It was the first “trial of the century.” It was a horrific crime committed by two young men, there was mystery involved in how the case was solved, and suspense in how Clarence Darrow saves their lives.  A tremendous story.

MY: You know Hitchcock’s “Rope” and the 1990s film “Swoon” were also based on the Leopold-Loeb murders.

FB: I missed “Swoon,” but Hitchcock’s “Rope” is a favorite.  As an aside, you have to wonder how Hitchcock is going to make one of his famous cameos when the movie is conducted inside of the apartment.

Another interesting film is “In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote.  If you’re going to watch that, follow it up with “Capote,” which addresses Capote’s life during the period he wrote “In Cold Blood.”

MY: The movie “Infamous” also addresses this time period in Capote’s life.  It was based on a work by George Plimpton, which pieced together various recollections of Capote by his friends and acquaintances.  But I’m glad you brought up “In Cold Blood,” because Capote was childhood friends with Harper Lee, who, of course, wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

FB: Exactly, there you go.  We come full circle.

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