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John J. Zefutie Jr.A Lawyer’s Movie Recommendations During Quarantine

April 20, 2020

In addition to practicing law, I’m somewhat of an amateur movie critic (just ask my Facebook friends). During this quarantine, I’m sure many of us are spending a bit more time in front of the television. Unfortunately, sub-par Netflix specials like Tiger Kinghave captured national attention. So, I’d like to take a break from the typical blog posts you see from lawyers and offer my thoughts on five of my favorite movies that feature lawyers and the legal process.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Judgment at Nuremberg is my favorite “lawyer movie.” As the title suggests, the film dramatizes the Nuremberg Trials that followed World War II. Thus, in many ways, it’s different from a typical courtroom drama. It’s a story that carries with it the weight of one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind—the Holocaust. The trial procedure in this movie is unique to say the least. But what I remember most about this film is Maximillian Schell’s performance; he won Oscar for Best Actor that year. His character is a polished, persuasive, and most importantly, prepared advocate. His delivery of the argument “The World’s Guilt” is brilliant, and his cross examinations are blistering.

My Cousin Vinnie

Every lawyer should watch My Cousin Vinnie. I first saw it when I was a “yute,” and I thought it was hilarious at the time. On the surface, it’s a comedy about a wise-cracking Italian from Brooklyn trying a case in the deep south where eggs and grits, mud in tires, and 4 a.m. train whistles are commonplace. But the film also provides a great example of trial practice. Although Vinnie’s opening statement would be sanctionable, the rest of his trial work is exemplary. As a litigator, the only major issue I have is that the “voir dire” of Mona Lisa Vito—one of my favorite supporting characters of all time—is done in front of the jury. That aside, hats off to the attorney who consulted on this film. This also was Fred Gwynne’s final film performance. He should have at least earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the judge.

The Verdict

The Verdict is about both a trial and personal redemption. It’s a classic David v. Goliath story, told with a great script by David Mamet and a stunning performance by Paul Newman. Newman is a down-on-his-luck, boozy lawyer who is given a “sure thing” case to settle quickly, which would earn him a substantial contingency fee. All he has to do is settle a malpractice claim on behalf of a woman who was given the wrong anesthetic prior to childbirth. While taking photos of the comatose young woman in the hospital in order to bolster his settlement position, he has a change of heart. He declines the settlement and brings the case to trial. There are a lot of clichés in this movie to be sure, and I can’t endorse Newman’s character declining a settlement offer without consulting with his client. That aside, this is a must-see in the courtroom drama category.

The Paper Chase

When I told family and friends I decided to go to law school, all of them said, “You should watch The Paper Chase.” I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t. As many of you know, The Paper Chase is the story of a first-year law student at Harvard Law School. It depicts his experience with his classmates, friends, and most particularly, his contracts professor, Professor Kingsfield. The film shows law school as a grueling experience that can break you. My experience in law school, fortunately, was the exact opposite. We worked hard, but we played hard too. Nevertheless, the performances in The Paper Chase—especially John Houseman’s Oscar-winning performance as Professor Kingsfield—are top-notch. Additionally, the characters are well-drawn, and the film combines a lot of humor with just the right amount of drama.

A Civil Action

A Civil Action is another David v. Goliath story that uses environmental pollution in Woburn, Massachusetts as its backdrop. Fans of the book will note that the movie waters down the story a bit (no pun intended), and that there are certain dramatic embellishments. For example, I dislike the sequence in which Jan Schlichtmann, the main character, hands out his business cards at an accident site. I know for a fact that never happened (at least that’s what Jan told us). Those embellishments aside, there are many great moments in the film that both lawyers and non-lawyers will appreciate. One moment that comes to my mind is the scene in which the parties are waiting in the hallway while the jury deliberates. Any trial lawyer will tell you that those hours or days waiting for the jury to render its decision are tough. In the film, it’s at this precise time that defense attorney Jerry Facher, played smartly by Robert Duvall, makes a very tempting settlement offer.

Just Mercy*

*Full disclosure—I haven’t actually seen Just Mercy yet. But I recently read the book by Bryan Stevenson, and if the movie is even somewhat close to the book in terms of story and message, then I’m going to recommend it. Just Mercy tells the story of a civil rights lawyer who handles death penalty cases in the south. I was shocked by the stories recounted in the book, which was recommended to me by friends at the New Jersey Public Defender’s office (you know who you are). As Mr. Stevenson tells us, we should all remember that a person is better than the worst thing s/he has ever done.

What’s Not on this List

Finally, pay close attention to what I have not recommended here—A Few Good Men, Michael Clayton, Suspect, and any movie based on a John Grisham novel. I strongly advise avoiding these films, despite what my partner may think!

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