4 Legal Movies with Real World Legal Lessons

Author: J. David Douthit, Esq., Richmond VA personal injury attorney

The practice of law is the subject of countless books, movies and television shows. As a trial lawyer, it can be interesting to compare the reality of practicing law with its portrayal in mainstream media. The following four movies are particularly noteworthy in their depiction of legal themes and impart valuable lessons for real life trial lawyers.

1. Presumed Innocent[1]:

This 1990 adaptation of Scott Turow’s book stars Harrison Ford and Raul Julia.  Ford plays a prosecutor tasked with investigating the murder of a fellow prosecutor with whom he had an affair.  He is ultimately charged with the murder and defended at trial by Julia’s character.  A key piece of evidence (a glass with Ford’s character’s fingerprints) is misplaced and critical forensic evidence introduced by the prosecution appears to exonerate Ford’s character.  Julia’s character, in his role as the defense attorney, uses the bungled forensic evidence to eviscerate the prosecution’s expert witness on the stand.  Ultimately, the charges against Ford’s character are dismissed with a public apology from the judge.

This movie illustrates the important point that a trial is not about what we “know” happened (as there is a tendency, while watching the film progress, to “know”  that Ford’s character is guilty) but what we can prove in the courtroom. The presentation of admissible and credible evidence is the most important aspect of any real trial.

2. Philadelphia[2]:

In this Oscar winning film from 1993, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington play lawyers who work in a large corporate firm.  Hanks’ character is a rising star in the firm  until his partners discover that he has AIDS. They conspire to fire him by manufacturing a set of circumstances under which it appears that Hanks’ character nearly misses a statute of limitations deadline due to his illness.  Hanks is terminated and files a discrimination lawsuit for wrongful termination. Washington’s character represents Hanks at trial and, shortly before Hanks’ character dies, they receive a verdict of $4.5 million. 

Washington’s cross examination of the partners who had previously given Hanks good reviews allows him to argue in closing that Hanks’ firing was not based on merit or his ability to practice law. During the trial, Washington asks that the witnesses explain the facts to him as if he was a four year old and the jurors later discuss this tactic during their deliberations. Washington’s ability to simplify the theme and presentation of his case results in his favorable verdict.

While this movie deals with many significant and weighty societal issues, it is important to note that, although a trial may deal with a complex range of facts, issues and emotions, a successful outcome often depends on a trial lawyer’s ability to simplify the case for the jury.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird[3]:

This 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel with the same title, enforces the importance of pursuing a just cause even if that cause is unpopular.  One of the main characters, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer appointed to defend an African-American man who is charged with committing a crime in Jim Crow-era Alabama.  Although Finch proves that the accusers are lying during the trial, the jury nevertheless convicts Finch’s character of the crime.  In a passage from the book, Finch explains to his daughter that: “real courage is knowing that you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

This movie depicts Finch’s dedicated pursuit of justice and shows a trial lawyer’s willingness to fight for his client against what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Finch’s ultimate defeat merely highlights the value and importance of fighting as hard as you can to protect your client’s interests.

4. All the President’s Men[4]:

This 1976 movie based on Bob Woodward and John Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal as reporters for the Washington Post demonstrates the importance of relentless, dogged investigation.  The existence of a confidential source significantly aids their early investigation but when Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee’s insists on confirming the source’s information, the two reporters are forced develop corroborative evidence through other means.  Their thorough investigation eventually plays a significant role in forcing Richard Nixon to resign as president.

While based on real events, the film’s portrayal of Woodward and Bernstein’s dedicated pursuit of corroborative evidence in support of the truth is a valuable lesson for any attorney.

Putting their entertainment value aside, these four films demonstrate that to succeed in the courtroom, a trial lawyer must remain focused on the evidence, keep the theme of their case simple and straightforward, pursue truth and justice and fight on their client’s behalf against all odds. These are valuable real world  lessons for any trial lawyer.

About the Author: Dave Douthit is a personal injury attorney at Allen & Allen. Working out of the Richmond Office, Dave is experienced in handling cases ranging from bike accidents to car accidents to premises liability.


A more detailed synopsis of these movies and these actors can be found online at:

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100404/

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107818/

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056592/

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074119/

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