Films Selected for the Course

When I decided to teach Lawyers and Film, I faced a problem: What films should I teach? It was neither practical nor an inviting prospect to review every lawyer film I had seen, and I had no desire to watch films that I would soon be watching again with students in the course.

I began by simply trying to list every lawyer film that I could remember. The quickly assembled list included:

"A Few Good Men" (1992) "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) "And Justice for All" (1979) "A Time to Kill" (1996) "‘Breaker’ Morant" (1980) "Class Action" (1991) "Kramer vs. Kramer"(1979) "My Cousin Vinny" (1992) "Nuts" (1987) "Paris Trout" (1991) "Philadelphia (1994) "Primal Fear" (1996) "Suspect" (1987) "The Accused" (1988) "The Client" (1994) "The Good Mother" (1988) "The Incident" (1990) "The Last Wave" (1977) "Music Box" (1990) "The Verdict" (1982) "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) "True Believer" (1989) "Cape Fear" (1991)

It was from this list of films--films I could remember--that I made the first selection of films. I had little trouble in deciding to include three classics: "Anatomy of a Murder" "The Verdict" "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I then made a first-round of cuts from my initial working list. I removed "‘Breaker’ Morant" from the list, even though it is a fine film, with the idea that it might better be used in a Jurisprudence and Film course. I decided not to use "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "The Good Mother" because the lawyers in these films have de minimus roles. "My Cousin Vinny" (1992) is great fun, and a teachable film, and I considered including it in the course because I wanted to include a comedy or two in the overall lineup. I decided not to screen "My Cousin Vinny" because so many students have not only seen the film but seen it many times. "The Incident" was not (at the time) readily available for pre-screening, and so I rather arbitrarily decided not to use it in the course. ("The Incident" is a surprisingly good made-for-TV film about a small town lawyer, Harmon Cobb (played by Walter Matthau), who is appointed to defend a Nazi prisoner of war against murder charges in the years following World War II. Cobb is taken by surprise when he finds that his client needs a real defense.)

I placed "Suspect" (1987) on the initial course list. Unlike many reviewers, I rather liked Cher’s performance as the lawyer, Kathleen Riley. When I taught "Suspect" the first time I offered the Lawyers and Film course, it evoked a lively discussion, but Kathleen Riley’s involvement with a juror, Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid), who provided crucial assistance in Riley’s efforts to defend her client, turned out to be a plot development that law students found problematic. I later dropped "Suspect" from the screening list.

I dropped "Paris Trout" from the course to make a place for other films.

I considered, and later revisited the idea of using "The Accused" (1988). I have not included "The Accused" because I remember the rather painful and graphic depiction of gang-rape. I did not relish the thoughts of revisiting the scene of the crime. "The Accused," for those more venturesome than I, might prove to be a worthwhile addition to a lawyer film course.

The first time I taught the course, the final line-up of films included:

"A Few Good Men" (1992) "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) "And Justice for All" (1979) "Class Action" (1991) "Music Box" (1990) "Paris Trout" (1991) "Suspect" (1987) "The Last Wave" (1977) "The Verdict" (1982) "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962)

I began to consider new films for the course as they appeared during the years I continued to teach the course: "The Devil’s Advocate" (1997), "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997), "Liar, Liar" (1997), "The Rainmaker" (1997), "The Winslow Boy" (1999), "Snow Falling on Cedars" (2000). I also reviewed older films, as I learned about them. The real find in this review of older films was "Adam’s Rib" (1949). "Adam’s Rib" is, in my view, a particularly good film with spirited performances by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, both lawyers, whose marriage is threatened by Amanda Bonner’s (Katharine Hepburn) resolution to take up a female client’s criminal case (and the cause of women in general) prosecuted by her husband Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy). I added "Adam's Rib" to the course film rooster immediately after I first viewed it.

I was discussing the course with an Australian colleague and he recommended "The Castle," a film I knew nothing about. This Australian film is now one of my favorite legal comedies and I have made use of it in the course in lieu of screening "My Cousin Vinny."

Films for the Course: The screening list of films for the course has evolved over several years. The films now screened in the course are: "Adam’s Rib" (1949); "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959); "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962); "And Justice for All" (1979); "The Verdict" (1982); "Class Action" (1991); "The Castle" (1999); "Music Box" (1990); "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997); "The Last Wave" (1977).

I have also used: "Nuts" (1987), "Philadelphia" (1994), "Decoration Day" (1990).

Order of Presentation of the Films: I start the course with "Adam's Rib." It is light-hearted, and humorous, and yet manages at the same time to be a serious film. The performances by Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are quite good and I find "Adam's Rib" an enjoyable film to watch. "Adam's Rib" is the oldest film screened in the course; and along with "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Anatomy of a Murder," it happens to be in black and white. "Adam's Rib," simply put, feels like the place to begin.

I save two tragedies"The Music Box" and "The Sweet Hereafter"until relatively late in the course.

I've never quite figured out where "To Kill a Mockingbird" belongs. Weary of the problem, I sometimes remove it from the screen list.

I end the course with "The Last Wave," a perplexing film, and rarely a student favorite.

Criteria for Selection: There is nothing written-in-stone about my preferred list of films. My basic criterion: I screen films that feature lawyers who are central characters in the film story, and present us with memorable lawyer characters. I favor films that portray lawyers and lawyer stories worth talking about.

There are many excellent legal films that raise issues about law, order, and justice. The films I have selected that focus on lawyers, their life in the law and how being a lawyer plays out in their life beyond the law. I sought out lawyer protagonists that have something to teach us (as the lawyer characters in the films find they have something to learn). I am drawn to films that present us with questions about the relationship of our professional and personal lives. I might note that a significant number of the films we watch have received acclaim by film critics and legal scholars; the decision to use a particular film is based on my own sense of the value of the film.

Web Resources

Trial Films: Wikipedia

Course Films (Wikipedia)

"Adam's Rib" "Anatomy of a Murder" "To Kill a Mockingbird" "And Justice for All"
"The Verdict" "Class Action" "The Castle" "Music Box" "The Sweet Hereafter"
"The Last Wave"