Here we list the best movies of all time related to the law, including the only two films that really place law school itself front and center.
If you asked screenwriters to name the top ten least interesting settings for a movie, I bet law school would make the list. It’s after law school that, in fiction at least, lawyers become interesting. That said, a few movies have managed to make learning the law into something worth filming, and we’ve got ’em on the list. The rest are about lawyers, who everyone knows make great movie material.
With that in mind, we give you the best law school and law movies of all time. If there is something you think has been unfairly omitted from the list, let us know in the comments. We’ll immediately fix any glaring oversights.
THE BEST LAW SCHOOL MOVIES
This is a really feel good comedy about a girl who ditches the California sorority lifestyle to pursue her ex-boyfriend through the halls of Harvard Law. Along the way, her priorities get a serious readjustment. Reese Witherspoon is seriously charming as Elle Woods, and it’s unsurprising that Woods has become the spirit animal of many soon to be law students.
Best Law Movie Quote: “I feel comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life.” [someone whistles at her] “I object!”
While the movie is certainly an over the top kind of comedy, it’s actually hews pretty close to reality in how it presents law school and the admissions process. We even get a glimpse of Elle Woods prepping really hard for the LSAT. You’ll have to buckle down as well if you want her score, a 179.
Fun fact: they were going to film have it set at UChicago rather than Harvard until the UChicago declined due to the scene where a professor places his hand on a student’s leg. Given what a cultural touchstone the film has become, I’m betting my Alma Mater regrets letting Harvard steal the show.
This is really the only serious flick about law school life. It’s brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the dynamic between law professor and student. The movie is worth watching just for actor John Houseman’s academy award winning performance as Professor Kingsfield. Every school still has a professor that knows how to absolutely terrify the 1Ls — for us at UChicago, that was Richard “The Hammer” Helmholz. The Paper Chase’s Professor Kingsfield is like a distillation every one of these scary Arch-villain type professors.
Best Law Movie Quote: “Mr. Hart, you’re still not speaking loud enough. Will you stand? Speak louder, Mr. Hart! Fill the room with your intelligence!”
I doubt you’ll run into any professor quite as intimidating as Kingsfield, but the movie is still instructive: if watching makes you want to be 500 miles away from a classroom situation like that, you might want to rethink those law school plans! Also, while the depiction of the socratic method may be exaggerated, the movie is deadly accurate in showing what studying for finals is like. Law school finals are all-consuming! The Paper Chase on Amazon
Actually my favorite of the movies about law students, this movie features Matt Damon as a poker shark turned law student, forced to crawl back into the New York City poker underworld to save a dead-beat friend. It’s not a truly great movie by any means but it has some stellar moments –particularly memorable is John Malkovich an eccentric gangster Teddy KGB, giving a performance that helped elevate the film to a cult status (or at least a bro favorite).
There isn’t a whole lot of lawyering or law-studenting in here, but is that really such a bad thing? It’s a great one to watch 1L year when you don’t want to think too much.
Okay, I think that covers the only three movies in history to depict a law school study group hard at work. If I missed any, please let me know in the comments. On to the actual lawyer movies! Rounders on Amazon
THE BEST LAW MOVIES
If Elle is the patron saint of all fun-turned-serious law students, than Vinny is for the slackers who still want to be lawyers. IRL, the chances that someone like Vinny would survive 3 years of law school are slim, but I suppose anything is possible with tenacity (Vinny passes his bar on the 6th try). Despite that, the movie’s portrayal of courtroom procedure is actually incredibly accurate (the director, a law student himself, insisted on getting it right).
Best Law Movie Quote: Hey, Honey. Where’d you read about all that disclosure shit?
The main reason to watch this though is the chemistry between Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. Tomei especially is hilarious, and this is the kind of movie you can watch over and over again. I’m also guessing it set a record at the time for most f-words in a movie. My Cousin Vinny on Amazon
This is the “you can’t handle the truth” movie. If you can name a better example of a explosive trial confession, please, the floor is yours. You won’t be able to. This smouldering courtroom drama probably directly spawned about a hundred subsequent lawyer shows and movies.
Best Law Movie Quote: “I strenuously object?” Is that how it works? Hm? “Objection.” “Overruled.” “Oh, no, no, no. No, I STRENUOUSLY object.” “Oh. Well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider.”
I might actually just have to stop writing and watch this now, so excuse me. Jack Nicholson is great, as always. A Few Good Men on Amazon
I really put this one in not only because it’s just a fantastic movie (maybe the best on this list so far), but also because it gets the big scary corporation feel right, increasing the appeal for soon to be corporate lawyers. It’s also the most “existential” of our offerings today, and should perfectly equip the law student of today to have career-killing crisis of conscience 20 years down the road.
Best Law Movie Quote: “Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a very rich and interesting life, but you’re a bag man not an attorney.”
George Clooney stars, and does a pretty damn good job, alongside some great supporting roles (this movie was the only film up for multiple acting awards at the 2008 oscars). Cerebral and chilling, it’s a much watch. Michael Clayton on Amazon (2008)
There has been 100s of movies about washed-up lawyers, but this has to be among the greats. Frank Galvin (played by Paul Newman) emerges from a haze of alcohol and moral ambiguity to correct a grave injustice.
Best Law Movie Quote: You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, “Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.” And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless.
Note that this one isn’t very concerned with accurate depiction of courtroom proceedings. In some ways, I think that makes it more fun for a law student. At any rate, this is a good one to feed your inner idealist.
An obligatory addition to the list, since most lawyers idolize Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck’s Finch earned recognition from the American Film Institute as the “Greatest Hero of American Film”
Best Law Movie Quote:I don’t know if it will help saying this to you… some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us… your father is one of them.
Being on the right side of history is never easy, yet I would argue it’s a lawyer’s duty.