A Lawyer Film Genre

[T]he assignment of a text to a genre influences how the text is read. Genre constrains the possible ways in which a text is interpreted . . . .

—An Introduction to Genre Theory: Working Within Genres (David Chandler)

Do lawyer films constitute a film genre and if so, how is the genre to be described?

David Chandler, in a website posting, "Introduction to Genre Theoryr," no longer online, poses some questions about genre, which I reformulate for our purposes as follows:

What films have you seen to suggest the existence of a lawyers film genre? During the course of a semester of watching lawyer films do you begin to get the notion that such a genre exists?

What expectations do you have when you watch a lawyer film?

What conventions do you find present in lawyer films? How do these genre conventions shape and constrain the meaning you attribute to the film?

Are there social, political, or ideological perspectives you expect to find expressed or embedded in lawyer films?

What pleasures do you associate with watching lawyer films?

To what audience are lawyer films directed?

What do we learn, if anything, in taking up stories we already know, that is, genre stories in which we know how they will progress and how they will come to a familiar end?

These questions, prompted by and adapted from David Chandler's work on genre theory should set us to thinking about the lawyer film genre. I ask again: Does such a genre exist? If so, what are its narrative conventions? What can lawyers learn from the genre (if indeed it exists and one can expect lawyers to learn from such texts)?

We might consider the possibility that lawyer films do not constitute a genre, a view found in this comment: "There is no ‘lawyer movie’ genre, although reviewers often use the phrase ‘courtroom drama’ when most of the action takes place at trial. Lawyers appear in dramas, musicals, science fiction films, action-filled adventures, mysteries, Westerns, thrillers, and comedies from slapstick to sinister.” Rebecca Porter, Lawyers on the Big Screen, 38 Trial 54 (March, 2002)]

Trial/Courtroom Drama Genre: There is a consensus, if I have it right, at least among legal film critics, that trial or courtroom drama films are likely candidates for genre status, although the genre has not been more broadly widely recognized among film critics. We do not, as yet, have a scholarly definition of either a legal film or lawyer film genre, and thus my temptation to offer the preliminary outlines of one here.

The Lawyer Film Genre: I am particularly interested in lawyer films, and I argue that they should be considered, for genre purposes, as more clearly defined than a broad array of films that have legal and jurisprudential significance.

In my view, it will be lawyer films rather than the courtroom drama genre that will prove the greater value to students of law. Let me explain: Law schools take as one of their several missions the education and training of the student as not just a future lawyer but a litigator, a man or woman who can walk into the courtroom and try a case, civil or criminal. It is scenes of the lawyer in the courtroom—Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (film and novel), Frank Galvin (Paul Neuman) in "The Verdict," Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) in "And Justice for All"—that lodge themselves in memory just as did the heroes in Western films forever rooted in my memories as a young boy. While Atticus Finch, Frank Galvin, and Arthur Kirkland shape our mythic sense of the lawyer, there is the trace of the archetype of the hero and a narrative structure to support the hero in virtually every lawyer film. For those who are less enamored with the hero in film, we might say this: The lawyer film does what law school does not bother or pretend to do—it tells us that the lawyer lives in a world beyond the courtroom and beyond law, that no lawyer is immune to the sins, villains, and evils of the world, and that not being immune makes us human and makes us characters in dramas worth seeing---again and again and again.

Let me suggest the following as a working thesis: There is a lawyer film genre and its structural features as a genre can be described as follows:

the film’s protagonist is a lawyer;

the film presents the lawyer engaged in professional work;

the lawyer’s work, his life, and his world, have been significantly disrupted either by a client’s case or cause, by some feature of the lawyer’s work, his/her life in the law firm, or by some event in the lawyer’s personal life;

the ordinary world of the lawyer is subject to a significant threat;

the threat of confusion, dissolution, loss, uncontrolled outrage, or craziness must be addressed, and it gets addressed by the lawyer's resort to professional and personal resources related to the character's wor; and in addressing the threat, the lawyer’s work and the meaning of that work is at stake;

the lawyer may, during the course of the drama that ensues from the upending of his ordinary world, be involved in litigation that culminates in dramatic courtroom scenes;

the lawyer’s courtroom battles, engagements with clients, and efforts to marshal his or her own psychological resources encounter substantial obstacles, and in the deployment of his/her resources, and the inevitable failures to immediately prevail, we find the lawyer engaged in something akin to a heroic journey.

Four Part Narrative Structure


When we first view the lawyer and his world, we find a person and a world that we know cannot last, alas, something must change, the lawyer must become real and human, and to do so the lawyer must learn what he/she does not know.

We are presented with the lawyer and his world:

the lawyer is a fallen warrior, or his world is falling apart around him (Frank Galvin in "The Verdict");

the lawyer is a rising star (Kevin Lomax in "The Devil’s Advocate")(Jake Brigance "A Time to Kill")(Maggie Ward in "Class Action"), and if not a rising star, a man who can rise to the occasion (Vinnie Gambini in "My Cousin Vinny");

the lawyer is a thoroughly established person in the community, or the community of lawyers (Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird")(Paul Biegler in "Anatomy of a Murder")(Adam Bonner and Amanda Bonner in "Adam's Rib");

the lawyer is already a shining star (Martin Vail in "Primal Fear")(Jan Schlichtmann in "A Civil Action")(Jedediah Tucker Ward in "Class Action");

the lawyer is not where he's been or quite where he's going, or in is a mid-life crisis (Paul Biegler in "Anatomy of a Murder") (Mitchell Stevens" in "The Sweet Hereafter");

the lawyer is neither fallen nor a star, neither firmly established in a community or a social outlaw, but inhabits an endless world of routine, personal and legal (Arthur Kirkland in "And Justice for All")(Kathleen Riley in "Suspect")(Ed Masry in "Erin Brockovich").


The lawyer’s world must be disrupted, most often by the appearance of a particular client or a character; or an appearance that moves the character, and the story, from the opening state of affairs toward a reconfigured order of existence.


The fallen lawyer must seek, against opposition and by overcoming obstacles, a more secure place in the world. The path of the rising star is threatened by obstacles and opposition that block the ascent and threaten a reversal. The star’s place at the top of the heap is questioned or challenged, and may, either temporarily or permanently, be altered. A mid-life crisis of manageable proportion must be threatened by more serious threats. The everyday, routine work of the lawyer must in some way become extraordinary, as in "And Justice for All," or with Amanda Bonner’s decision to take a case in which she opposes her husband in "Adam’s Rib."


With the lawyer’s world, and central place of his work in that world established, and what is established threatened, the lawyer must respond to the challenge presented. The nature of the response turns on the lawyer’s character. The response leads to a resolution and the reordering of the lawyer’s world, or to a new life beyond law’s reach.

A concluding note: I have tried to define a specific kind of legal film in which there is a particular focus on the lawyer and the lawyer’s world. A film may, of course, feature a lawyer and still not be a part of the lawyer film genre, and there are both legal and courtroom dramas that focus on law and the larger world within which a lawyers’ work takes place, films that might properly be called legal films, films with jurisprudential significance, that I would not include in the lawyer film genre.


N1. On the Film-Theory discussion group (Spoon Collective, University of Virginia) someone says, "I have a question: What is a genre?" The responses, from a group of sophisticated film enthusiasts (and film studies teachers), were not all that instructive. I was able to distill only two comments of interest (which I have taken the liberty to edit):
I would use the term [genre] if the films use similar narrative conventions. Genre is based on narrative form—how time and space are used to tell a story. The setting itself is not, in my view, enough to constitute a genre or story type.

A genre depends upon a community of reader/users.

We'll need to do substantially better than this if we are going to consider a possible lawyer film genre.

N2. Notes on genre from Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988):

"Form inheres in the very substance of social life. Form not only determines cognition, how one experiences the world; it also determines the shape of social institutions, practices, and values." [267]

"Genres hold the world in place, establishing and enforcing a sense of propriety, of proper boundaries which demarcate appropriate thought, feeling, and behavior and which provide frames, codes, and signs for constructing a shared social reality. We are speaking now of genres in a broad sense which includes the different areas of social behavior—public as well as private. Each area is a locus of conventionally determined behavior. . . . Film genres participate in this process by sorting out the different values and ideals a social order requires to be internalized if it is to survive. The traditional western, for example, aided the construction of a social reality in which it was believed that males appropriately dominated the public sphere, while the traditional melodrama constructed a social reality, a commonly held set of precepts, attitudes, and beliefs, which promoted the domestic sphere as the one appropriate to women." [77]

"Genres depend on receptive audiences who are willing to grant credibility to the conventions of the genre to the extent that those conventions become invisible. Once that is accomplished the generic illusion can assume the character of verisimilitude. It no longer seems to be constituted through the manipulation of coded formulae. A certain occlusion of rhetoric and convention, therefore, is crucial to the successful transmission of ideological beliefs to the audience. What this means, however, is that once the generic conventions are foregrounded, the genre can no longer operate successfully as a purveyor of ideology. The conventions become unstable and variable; history increasingly intervenes in the realm of myth; and the generic signifiers themselves increasingly become signifieds, the referents of films rather than the active agents of cinematic practice, a matter of content rather than a vital form." [78]

"All genres create a tradition that can become an object to be cited, an occasion for reflexivity." [79] The authors give an example of Westerns which had, they contend, by the early 70s tended "either to demystify the myth of the West or to depict the closing of the frontier and the end of the mythic space of the traditional western (Will Penny, Monte Walsh, etc.). During this period, the western undergoes a process whereby its conventions are made visible; it increasingly assumes the form of a tradition that is reflected on and referred to in film." [79-80]

"The eclipse of the western was thus fostered both by the subversion of its generic conventions and by its exhaustion as a mode of ideological legitimization." [81]

One might also see something of the film noir genre in lawyer films. Ryan and Kellner note that:

"Traditionally the film noir of the late forties and early fifties depicts a dark world of contending, sometimes ambiguous, moral forces, in which deception, treachery, and murder are commonplace. Dialog is frequently abrasive, and the style is usually characterized by night shooting, dark shadows, sharp lighting contrasts, askew camera angles, symbolic environments and convoluted narratives. . . . These films frequently feature detectives who operate on the edge of the law as hard-bitten loners only marginally able to relate to women (who are frequently the source of evil). The films usually expose corrupt wealth and power; crime and business often seem interchangeable." [83]

"Indeed, the noir world is characterized by crossed boundaries." [83]

"The contemporary noir revivals can be said to pertain . . . to that strain of populist distrust or loss of confidence. . . . The rich and powerful are usually portrayed as corrupt. . . . [84]

N3. "The genre is a network of codes that can be inferred from a set of related texts. A genre is as real as a language and exerts similar pressures through its network of codes, meeting similar instances of stolid conformity and playful challenge. No one who has ever studied seriously the history of any art can doubt the importance of precedent, schema, presupposition, convention—all those things that in literary study we call genre and style—in the actual production of texts. The more one knows about a given historical situation the more one realizes the struggle behind even the smallest innovations in any art or craft, a struggle first to master and then to transcend a given generic or stylistic practice." [Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English 3 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1985)]

N4. "The genre film meant reassurance to the audience. They knew what they were going to get." [David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business xi (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)]

N5. “The fascination with the trial and courtroom warriors runs deep in American culture. The trial ritual offers wonderful cinematic possibilities of tension and drama. In addition, in America, which lacks a state religion, law and depictions of judges as minions of the secular god (law) have become a national substitute for the universal church.” [Lawrence Fleischer, Book Review, New York L. J., October 1, 1996 (reviewing Paul Bergman & Michael Asimow, Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies)]

Steve Greenfield & Guy Osborn relate the trial/courtroom genre to what they call the “theatre of law” and note that:

The courtroom has long been used as a vehicle for drama. It is an arena in which dramatic tension can easily be built, and with the added ease of constructing grand soliloquy and speech. This trend is echoed in film portrayals and advocacy offers the chance for an actor to display great oratory. Historically, the classic law film has revolved around a formal and serious courtroom drama with clear identification of the search for justice. Prime examples of the genre include Young Mr Lincoln,To Kill A Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind, and through to more contemporary examples such as Suspect, The Verdict and Philadelphia. In addition, films such as Brothers in Law and My Cousin Vinny have ploughed the comedic quality of lawyers and legal process.
[Steve Greenfield & Guy Osborn, Film, Law and the Delivery of Justice: The Case of Judge Dredd and the Disappearing Courtroom, 6 (2) J. Crim. Just. & Pop. Culture 35, 36 (1999)] [on-line text]

Greenfield and Osborn go on to point out that while we may use the trial/courtroom feature of the film for placement in the legal film genre, these films are all “open to broader meanings and interpretations.” It may be these broader meanings that give legal films lasting significance for one's legal education.

N6. The lawyer film genre is inexorably linked to other legal films, and particularly, the courtroom drama. As the scholarly work on lawyer films evolves, we may find legal scholars drawing upon the Western, detective, crime, and film noir genres to provide descriptive elements of a lawyer film genre. Anthony Chase notes that “[t]he overlap between the legal genre and a host of others (crime, gangster, prison, melodrama, western, science fiction, social science fiction, slapstick comedy, and so forth) immediately complicates the question in interesting ways.” [Anthony Chase, Civil Action Cinema, 1999 L. Rev. MSU-DCL 945] Chase goes on to note that:

Popular fascination with crime, in short, gives you bestselling mysteries: professional fascination with crime, devoid of sentiment, gives you the defense lawyer. Considering the public’s addiction to facts of crime, it is hardly surprising that the legal trial genre is dominated by the high drama of criminal trials. But the professional and moral predicament faced by the defense attorney with a guilty client (Knock on Any Door, And Justice for All, Compulsion, Jagged Edge, Criminal law, Guilty as Sin, Primal Fear), is only one subcategory of the criminal trial film. Perhaps more familiar, or at least traditional, is the heroic tale of a defender who represents the innocent (Young Mr. Lincoln, To Kill a Mockingbird, Suspect, Presumed Innocent). And just as it would be a mistake to collapse the legal genre itself into trial films, it would also be erroneous to believe that criminal trials exhaust the cannon of courtroom confrontation in fiction and film. There is still the civil side. [Id. at 947-948]

On the Western as a parallel genre to the lawyer film, consider that the Western involves protagonists engaged in the fundamental struggle over law and order, the struggle takes place in a world both harsh and brutal, the forces associated with good and evil can readily be identified, and the individual who most distinctly stands out in this social world is the man and woman with courage. The West in film is

a place where simple survival was difficult, a place where nature was uncompromising, just as society had been uncompromising in the places they had left. The West offered the possibility of a new beginning, of re-founding, of establishing governments from reflection and choice, rather than mishaps of birth and tradition. In the West, it was thought, they had it in their power to make the world over again. But the Western movie showed that even in a new land, the law was not easily established on principles of justice and the common good. [John Marini, Western Justice: John Ford and Sam Peckinpah on the Defense of the Heroic, 6 Nexus: J. of Opinion 57 (Spring, 2001)]

Marini goes on to note that

The Western, therefore, could raise the question concerning the supposed virtues of progress, and the forces–perhaps more virtuous–opposed to it. It did not take the superiority of civilization for granted. The law, and civilization, too, had to justify itself in an almost philosophic way. It is for this reason that the appeal of the Western was a universal, not just an American, phenomenon. [Id. at 58]

[On the Western genre, its narrative conventions, structural components, and mythic significance, see generally Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975). Will Wright’s Sixguns & Society is required reading for anyone seeking to do genre work on legal and lawyer films.]

[For an effort to draw parallels between film noir and legal films, see Norman Rosenberg, “Film Noir,” in John Denvir (ed.), Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts 280-302 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).]

N7. Kristin Thompson observes that “Hollywood protagonists tend to be active, to seek out goals and pursue them rather than having goals simply thrust upon them. Almost invariably, the protagonist’s goals define the main lines of action.” [Kristin Thompson, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique 14 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999)]

The protagonist in a lawyer film provides a different perspective on this fundamental narrative convention in that the lawyer’s goals and pursuits are often defined by a client and a client’s cause. It is the client and/or the cause that places the lawyer in conflict.

N8. The lawyer may, in some films, be acting as a surrogate, agent, or representative for a client whose ordinary world has been significantly disrupted and whose character/identity/work are at stake and who then seeks reparation of his situation by the lawyer’s resort to legal remedies.

N9. The lawyer, in confronting enemies, and in using his tools as a lawyer, ends up implicating larger social institutions. “Storytelling . . . is always the story of the individual in some sort of relationship to his social, political, or cultural environment. He can found that environment, he can civilize it, he can find it confusing, or he can hate it: but the basic terms of story are, like the basic terms of any human being’s relationship to his world . . . .” [Frank McConnell, Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images From Film and Literature 6 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) (Frank McConnell remind us that, "Even at the most unredeemed level of ‘escapist’ entertainment, cheap novels or trash films, the didactic force of storytelling is still present and important. What kind of world does a person want to escape to?” Id. at 4)]

N10. "L.A. Law" marked a substantially different kind of lawyer tv drama, “different in that it focused on the ethical and personal lives of lawyers. Where Perry Mason had been a detective hero, always seeing to it that the innocent were acquitted, L.A. Law showed lawyers at times working hard to acquit the guilty, at all times working hard to make lots of money, and rarely working hard to follow strict legal ethics.” [Charles B. Rosenberg, The Myth of Perfection, 24 Nova L. Rev. 641, 644 (2000) (the format of L.A. Law was, according to Rosenberg, a “mix of the personal and the substantive.” Id.) L.A. Law aired in the fall of 1986, ran for eight years (1986-1994), and was “the first true ‘blockbuster’ legal show, watched some weeks by as many as forty million people.” Id. at 644.]

We find the precursor of "L.A. Law" in earlier lawyer films, in particular "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959)(work of an admirable lawyer for a client we assume is guilty); "The Verdict" (1982)(a lawyer, Frank Galvin, whose personal and professional life is in substantial disarray, and who engages in questionable ethical conduct, although his civil client is deserving). If it is the “ethical and personal lives of lawyers” that marks the modern turn in lawyer films, the development might be traced to "Adam’s Rib" (1949) and "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962).

N11. In lawyer films, we often see lawyers at the top of their form, high and mighty, and we expect them to take a fall, to learn they missed something along the way, that even the high and the mighty still have something to learn, something their success may have helped them avoid learning, indeed a success that features in their delusions about themselves and their world.

Bibliographical Sources

General: Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: British Film Institute, 1989); Arthur Asa Berger, Popular Culture Genre: Theories and Texts (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1992); Nick Browne (ed.), Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Barry Keith Grant (ed.), Film Genre III (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Barry Landrum, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2005); Steve Neal, Genre and Hollywood (New York: Routledge,1989)

Legal: "A Question of Genre: Jagged Edge and Guilty as Sin," in Cynthia Lucia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film 102-127 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)

Web Resources


Trial Movies

Film Genre

Legal Drama

The Field of Genre and Australian Filmic Texts
Carol Laseur -- dissertation, communications studies, 1989

Film Genre
Tim Dirk -- classifcations and categories

Film Noir

"Film noir is the conjunction of violence and irony . . . ."

—David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business 145 (New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2008)

Film Noir

Film Noir
Tim Dirks-Filmsite.org

Ten Shades of Noir
Images Journal

Does Film Noir Mirror the Culture of Contemporary America?
Lise Hordnes

Narrative Innovations in Film Noir

Film Noir and Film Noir Heritage

Film Noir: "You sure you don't see what you hear?"

Norman Rosenberg, "Law Noir," in John Denvir (ed.), Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts 280-302 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996)

The Western

The Western: An Overview

Phenomenology of the Western

Western Films

Western (Genre)

30 Great Westerns


Will Wright, Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975)

On Law and Westerns: Francis Nevins, "Westerns," in Robert M. Jarvis & Paul R. Joseph (eds.), Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative 189-217 (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1998); Mary Nichols, Law and the Western: High Noon, 22 Legal Stud. F. 591 (1998)