LegalEase: Question 2 — Are Law Movies Realistic?

Last week I discussed one of the very real questions people ask when they meet lawyers. But perhaps the most common questions are about whether the law-related movie they just watched...

Last week I discussed one of the very real questions people ask when they meet lawyers. But perhaps the most common questions are about whether the law-related movie they just watched is realistic.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at three of America’s favorite law movies (or at least three I decided to write about). I’ve watched several, so I’m damn near an expert on this topic. May contain spoilers but not bad ones unless you’re a real whiner.

Do you have a favorite that I don’t mention? Probably so. Let me know so I can watch Netflix and call it research.

My Cousin Vinny


As if I could do this list without it.

Synopsis — Two 20-something guys from New York are inexplicably driving through Alabama when one steals a can of tuna from a gas station. The clerk, lacking tuna, is murdered soon after. The police accordingly arrest the protagonists and charge them with murder. One has a cousin (Vinny) with a law degree who drives down to help, but doesn’t know what he’s doing and the judge hates him. Vinny’s disproportionately hot girlfriend (Joe Pesci is my favorite actor but come on) saves the day by taking pictures of tire tracks. The characters eat grits.

What it gets right

  • First, I don’t think Vinny ever got paid. If you don’t ask for the cash up-front, prepare for the client to fuck you. “But we’re cousins!” Yeah, and you just spent a month in and out of jail in BFE because your cousin is a dumbass.
  • Second, it is accurate to show that you should never piss off the judge. Judges are as close as we get to kings in America, and in that courtroom whatever they say is effectively the law until an appeals court overturns it.
  • Third, nobody really cares if you don’t understand all of the local court rules because you’re new. You passed the bar, so you’re a sharp fella. Right? Figure it out.
  • I love when Pesci hits that jackass in the face.

What it gets wrong

  • So we’re supposed to believe the sheriff helped Vinny win the case when he realized the boys might not have done it after all? Please fuck right off this instant. He’s got a reputation to keep and this is a high-profile case. And the DA has a conviction rate to maintain. If the sheriff lets the sexiest death penalty case of the year fall apart so late in the game over some bullshit like “the defense attorney had a good point”, he can forget the DA’s help shutting down those meth dealers who don’t contribute to his “retirement fund”. Yeah, they’ll make sure the real killer has 2,000 Oxy pills scattered on the floor of his car next time he’s pulled over, but those boys are done.
  • Also, so they’re just going to drop the tuna can theft too? They confessed to that one, open-and-shut. At least you can make them do 30 days for wasting your time.

Score — 20(minutes for grits to cook).

The Firm


We haven’t seen our children for more than 20 minutes in 15 years.

Synopsis —A law firm hires new law school graduate Tom Cruise and rains insane perks on him. But then he feels all bad after learning that all his cool stuff comes from the firm committing tax fraud and money laundering, and that the firm kills people who find out. Oh, and their main client is a mafia family. So he decides to quit/cooperate with the FBI.

What it gets right

  • Studying for the bar exam blows. And he had to do it without those overpriced courses to help. It made the opposite of nostalgic. I remembered it, but was happy that I didn’t have to relive it through my memories.
  • I’ve never worked for a large law firm, but the long hours, blood oaths of silence, and arranged infidelity for blackmail purposes match all the stories I’ve ever heard. They gave you a free house, what do you expect?
  • If you’re going to commit fraud, don’t use the mail to do it. That turns even over-billing your clients into a federal crime.

What it gets wrong

  • Dude gets a job right out of law school with a house, car, insane salary. What’s he whining for? That’s how you know the movie isn’t recent. Try telling today’s recent law school grads about that situation and see what happens. “You’re saying you don’t like the job? So…you gonna quit then? I’ll take that shit tomorrow and help dump the bodies for the same salary.”
  • The mafia found out this guy is an FBI informant, and not only agrees to not kill him, but actually helps him help the FBI build a case against their lawyers for over-billing them. I know you don’t rip off the mob, but this is just ridiculous.

Score — 800, the minimum number of times my Dad mentioned “what he heard” law firms were like, eventually revealing that he got that information from The Firm.



Maybe that wasn’t such a clever move after all…

Synopsis — Anthony Hopkins is an old rich engineer who shoots his wife in the face for cheating on him. Ryan Gosling is a Los Angeles prosecutor who wants to become a corporate lawyer so he can finally pay off his loans even if it means helping Russian gangsters sell bio-waste as depression medication. Hopkins decides to defend himself in court to fuck with Gosling, who decides to take the bait right when it’s remarkably stupid to do that.

What it gets right

  • Prosecutors are often judged by their conviction rates. That is, a prosecutor who gets convictions on 100% of the cases that he tries is considered better than one who gets 60%. I sort of agree, but not totally. Usually winning stuff does mean you’re better at it, but not if it just means you drop any case that looks remotely hard. I’m picturing a cop telling a victim’s family “Yeah that was totally messed up, but the prosecutor is more of a ‘home at 6’ kind of guy so he usually doesn’t fuck with any murder that didn’t take place in the courthouse itself.”
  • A cop had an affair with the defendant’s wife, hit the defendant in the face, and then was present during the interrogation. That’s a great way to get a confession thrown out as a 5th Amendment violation.
  • That part where Gosling is running through the hospital with a court order but gets tackled before he can deliver it. The fact that a court order exists doesn’t mean shit until it’s been delivered to the subject of the order.

What it gets wrong

Score — Infinity, the number of eggs Anthony Hopkins will look at before he finds a perfect one.

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