The Top 10 Legal Movies of All Time

Andrew Arruda
March 21, 2018

Law folks like a good legal drama for us to watch so we can comment to family and friends on how unrealistic the plots are – here is a list of my top ten favorite legal movies.

Note! I said my favorites as I’m sure this list will draw other takes on what should have been on this list which I welcome…nothing beats good legal movies on a long cross-country flight to a legaltech event!

1. My Cousin Vinny

City slicker lawyer, a discussion of grits and how they’re cooked, and expert witness Marissa Tomei opining on Chevy 327s, this movie has everything and will always hold the number one spot in my books. Growing up right beside Little Italy also makes this my sentimental favorite!

Fun fact: Robert De Nero was writer Dale Launer’s first-choice to play Vinny Gambini…do I agree? Fuhgetabouuutit.

2. The Rainmaker

Danny DeVito, Matt Damon, Jon Voight, Claire Danes, and Mickey Rourke make this movie a fun watch as Matt Damon makes good on a huge case against a large insurance company. A Francis Ford Coppola flick, this film has always made for a fun albeit not always strictly accurate depiction of life as a lawyer.

Fun fact: This is John Grisham’s favorite adaptation of any of his books. He has said, “to me, it’s the best adaptation of any of my books. I love the movie. It’s so well done.”

3. 12 Angry Men

This classic helped me understand how a trial worked as a young child and see how important the role of a jury is. This adaptation of the 1954 play will always remain one of my favorites.

Fun fact: Director Sidney Lumet insisted on having all the actors remain in the same room for hours running through their lines without filming so when it was time to capture their acting, it felt like they were couped up and getting frustrated.

4. Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich has always been a hero of mine and this movie left a lasting effect on me as it highlighted the imbalances of our legal system. As a former small law firm lawyer, I always love a David and Goliath story and Julia Roberts does a great job in this flick.

Fun fact: Julia Roberts is left handed but played Erin Brockovich right-handed, this has made Julia Roberts one of two Academy Award-winning best actresses to play a right-handed character when they are left handed – the other? Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

5. A Civil Action

I’ve liked John Travolta since I saw him as a kid playing Danny Zucco in Grease and watching him play lawyer Jan Schlichtmann is always fun. This film, like Erin Brockovich, is based on a true story and also a David and Goliath story which I always love. I can still hear Travolta’s voice narrating and saying, “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.” Think about those odds.

Fun fact: The cast of A Civil Action includes four Oscar nominees: William H. Macy, Kathleen Quinlan, John Lithgow, and John Travolta and three Oscar winners: Robert Duvall, Kathy Bates, and Sydney Pollack.

6. The Firm

Tom Cruise as a lawyer was enough for me to get this one on the list but I especially like this film because in the end a large law-firm doesn’t go down for money laundering but because they overbill clients – this one tugs at the hearts of anyone who advocates for efficiency within the legal market.

Fun fact: Tom Cruise’s brother in this film is named Raymond, just like his brother’s name in Rain Man.

7. The Paper Chase

My sister is also an attorney and encouraged me to watch The Paper Chase before thinking about heading off to law school…and I still applied and went through with it! This film is an absolute classic and will always have a special place in my heart for the politics of the study group in this film as well as the pretentiousness of Professor Kingsfield.

Fun Fact: The film was shot in ROSS Intelligence’s birthplace, Toronto, Canada!

8. …and Justice for All

I’m biased on this one as Al Pacino is one of my favorite actors and a film with Pacino playing a lawyer had to fight hard NOT to be on this list, but I truly think Pacino did a great job in this film playing Arthur Kirkland. Most great Pacino films have him yelling something such as “Attica! Attica! Attica!” or “Hoo-ah!” but this film has one of his best movie quotes, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order! They’re out of order!”

Fun fact: Al Pacino turned down the lead role in Kramer vs. Kramer in order to play Arthur Kirkland this film. In an ironic twist, while Pacino was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, Dustin Hoffman won for his acting as the lead in…Kramer vs. Kramer.

9. A Few Good Men

Tom Cruise sure does a great job playing a lawyer and his performance in A Few Good Men was great, however, I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say that it’s Jack Nicolson’s performance that steals the show especially when he screams, “You can’t handle the truth!” That line alone could have secured a place on this list but the courtroom scenes in this film are fabulous as well.

Fun Fact: The movie’s title came from a long-running recruiting campaign for the U.S. Marine Corps, “We’re looking for a few good men” which has now become, “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.”

10. The Verdict

I really like this film. Paul Newman does an amazing job as lawyer Frank Galvin who takes on the entire system as he refuses to settle out a medical malpractice case and instead takes it the distance not only winning the case but finding himself in the process.

Once I realized I only had one more spot on this list and The Verdict still wasn’t mentioned it made me keenly aware that this list was obviously flawed and not really in true order and that I needed many more spots but I said top 10 and I’m sticking to it!

Fun fact: A young Bruce Willis makes an appearance sitting in the courtroom in the dramatic closing speech of the film…

Andrew Arruda

CEO & Co-Founder of ROSS Intelligence. International speaker on the subjects of AI, legal technology, & entrepreneurship and has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, BBC, Wired, Bloomberg, Fortune, Inc., Forbes, TechCrunch, the Washington Post, and the Financial Times.