Growing up in the 80s, I remember some of my all-time favorite lawyer movies such as The Firm, And Justice For All, The Jagged Edge, and The Accused. My friends and I used to sit on the edge of the bed (I guess we rented a VHS cassette) and bite our nails, waiting for the final verdict. Reminiscing about the good ‘ole days made me stop to think, who are some famous movie lawyers?
Famous Movie Lawyers in the 50s
Witness for the Prosecution – Sir Wilfrid Robarts – 1957
In this movie, Leonard Vole, played by Tyrone Power, is accused of murdering a wealthy woman. Sir Wilfrid Robarts, played by Charles Laughton, represents Leonard, who needs to have his alibi corroborated by his wife, Christine, played by Marlene Dietrich. However, as things progress, Christine flips sides and ends up testifying against him.
Anatomy of Murder – Paul Biegler – 1959
This film was considered one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time. It follows a Michigan lawyer, Paul Biegler, played by James Stewart, who has a tough time defending Lt. Manion, played by Ben Gazzara. Lt. Manion is accused of murdering a local bar owner after learning he had been charged with rape. In order to help his client, Biegler is up against a big-time city prosecutor, Claude Dancer, who is played by George C. Scott.
Compulsion – Jonathan Wilk – 1959
This film, directed by Richard Fleischer, is centered around two sociopathic students, Artie Straus, played by Bradford Dillman, and Judd Steiner, played by Dean Stockwell. They kill a boy on his way home from school in an attempt to commit the perfect crime. However, they leave behind evidence that gets them arrested.
Their lawyer, Jonathan Wilk, played by Orson Welles, works hard to defend them and keep them from getting the death penalty.
Famous Movie Lawyers in the 60s
To Kill a Mockingbird – Atticus Finch – 1962
This movie is about a six-year-old girl, Scout Finch, played by Mary Badham, and her older brother, Jem, played by Phillip Alford, who live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Their father, Atticus, played by Gregory Peck, is a respected lawyer who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, played by Brock Peters, against false allegations of rape. The trial exposes the two children to the evils of racism and the effects of stereotyping.
Famous Movie Lawyers in the 70s
And Justice for All – Arthur Kirkland – 1979
This movie, directed by Norman Jewison, is about a Baltimore defense attorney, Arthur Kirkland, played by Al Pacino, who ends up in jail for punching Judge Henry T. Fleming, played by John Forsythe, during an argument. At the time, Kirkland was defending his client, Jeff McCullaugh, played by Thomas G. Waites, who was stopped for a minor traffic offense and was mistaken for a murderer with the same name.
When Kirkland gets out of jail, he ends up defending the judge he punched, Fleming, who has since been accused of assaulting and raping a woman. Fleming believes it will work in his favor to have someone who openly hates him as his attorney.
Famous Movie Lawyers in the 80s
The Verdict – Frank Galvin – 1982
This movie, directed by Sidney Lumet, follows fallen attorney, Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman, who was fired from a Boston Law firm for alleged jury tampering. As a favor to his friend, Mickey, played by Jack Warden, Galvin agrees to take on a medical malpractice case.
At first, Galvin was going to settle the case but then changes his mind and takes it to trial, surprising the judge and the victim with his decision.
The Jagged Edge – Teddy Barnes – 1985
In this movie, directed by Mark Marquand, Jack, played by Jeff Bridges, is a big-time San Francisco publisher whose wife is found stabbed to death and tied to her bed. Once investigators discover that Jack would inherit her sizable fortune, he is arrested for her murder. Teddy Barnes, played by Glenn Close, is his defense attorney, who, convinced of his innocence, ends up falling in love with him.
The movie’s plot thickens at times when the audience is not sure of his innocence, and it seems possible that Jack could quite possibly murder his lawyer. Even his attorney questions this.
The movie holds the audience captive as they are left wondering if he is truly innocent and, thus, gets caught up in the affair between him and his lawyer or if he is actually guilty, which would put Barnes in danger.
The Accused – Kathryn Murphy – 1988
In this movie, Sarah Tobias, played by Jodie Foster, is a working-class girl who likes to live it up at the bars, flirting with guys and partying. After she fights with her boyfriend one night, she goes to a bar to cool off and ends up being pinned down and gang-raped by some of the locals while the crowd watches and cheers them on.
District attorney Kathryn Murphy, played by Kelly McGillis, takes the case but settles for a lesser charge. Murphy feels that if the defense attorney were to shed light on Tobias’ flirting party-girl nature, it could hurt their case altogether. However, after seeing how much this event traumatized Tobias, she decides to go after justice, only this time she goes after the crowd of people who watched Tobias get raped and did nothing to stop it.
Famous Movie Lawyers in the 90s
A Few Good Men – Lt. Daniel Kaffee – 1992
This film, directed by Rob Reiner, tells the story of a military lawyer, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, who defends two Marines charged with the murder of another Marine at Guantanamo Bay.
Lt. Kaffe is convinced by another lawyer played by Demi Moore not to plea bargain because she states they were acting on direct orders from Commanding Officer Col. Nathan Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson.
My Cousin Vinnie – Vincent Gambini – 1992
This movie, directed by Jonathan Lynn, is about two young New York friends, Bill Gambini and Stan Rothenstein, who are traveling in rural Alabama and end up getting arrested and put on trial for murder. Bill’s cousin, Vincent Gambini, played by Joe Pesci, has finally passed the bar after five attempts, and he represents the two, though not without a lot of blunders and mishaps made along the way.
The Firm – Mitch McDeere – 1993
Based on the book by John Grisham and directed by Sydney Pollack, The Firm is about a young lawyer, Mitch McDeere, played by Tom Cruise, who joins a small but prestigious law firm. At first, McDeere is honored to be added to the firm but soon learns from a receptionist, played by Holly Hunter, that the firm is involved in illegal operations for the mob.
Unfortunately, things get tricky when the FBI contacts McDeere to work for them as an informant. He becomes torn between doing the right thing in the eyes of the law or keeping himself alive.
Philadelphia – Joe Miller – 1993
This movie follows a Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, who struggles to hide not only the fact that he is homosexual but also his positive HIV status. He lives in fear of the negative impact this information would have on his career at a prestigious law firm should it become known. However, like most secrets, it is eventually exposed, causing him to lose his job at the firm.
Becket then decides to take on the firm in a discrimination lawsuit and hires the only attorney who will help him, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington. The two work together, going head to head with the firm’s top litigator, Belinda Conine, played by Mary Steenburgen.
Murder in the First – James Stampill – 1995
In this film directed by Marc Rocco, Henri Young, played by Kevin Bacon, was cruelly treated by the California Prison system. Young was initially arrested for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister and ended up in solitary confinement in the dark for three years. As a result, he went insane, killed a guard, and ended up on trial for murder.
James Stampill, played by Christian Slater, is appointed to defend Young. Stampill claims that the prison system that locked him in solitary confinement for three years is the one to blame for the murder and not Young.
A Time to Kill – Jake Brigance – 1996
In this film, Carl Lee Hailey, an African American man played by Samuel L. Jackson, shoots the men who raped his daughter while they are in transit to the courthouse to be tried for their crime. Attorney Jake Brigance, played by Matthew McConaughey, is hired to help get him acquitted of his crime, though he doesn’t hold out much hope given the fact that Hailey lives in a small, segregated town in the South. However, he is fueled by the unshakeable faith that Hailey has in him.
Primal Fear – Martin Vail – 1996
In this movie directed by Gregory Hoblit, Chicago Defense Attorney Martin Vail, played by Richard Gere, volunteers to represent a Kentucky teenager charged with murdering the archbishop.
The teenage suspect, Aaron Stampler, played by Edward Norton, is chased by the police and eventually captured, covered in the archbishop’s blood. He is dubbed by the headlines, “The Butcher Boy of St. Mike’s.” But is he really guilty?
A psychologist, Molly Arrington, played by Frances McDormand, exams Stampler and discovers that he was not alone with the archbishop. There was another person in the room as well. As things unravel and the case progresses, Vail eventually finds himself up against the church’s dark secrets. Things are not as simple as he thought.
Rainmaker – Rudy Baylor – 1997
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Rainmaker is about attorney Rudy Baylor, played by Matt Damon, who, after struggling to find work, ends up settling for a job working for a lawyer, played by Mickey Rourke, with questionable morals.
During Baylor’s employment with this lawyer, he meets Deck Shifflet, a paralegal played by Danny DeVito, and Dot Black, played by Mary Kay Place. Black is fighting with her insurance company, which will not provide coverage for her dying son. Baylor teams up with Shifflet and takes on Black’s insurance company and their attorney, played by Jon Voight.
The Devil’s Advocate – Kevin Lomax – 1997
A Florida defense attorney, Kevin Lomax, played by Keanu Reeves, takes a position at a New York law firm led by John Milton, played by Al Pacino.
While he works there, his mentally ill wife, Mary Ann, played by Charlize Theron, has more and more frightening and mystical experiences that alter her reality. As he juggles home life and career, he soon learns that his boss is really not who he claims to be in this supernatural legal thriller.
Amistad – Roger Baldwin – 1997
This film, directed by Steven Spielberg, takes place in 1839 on a slave ship sailing from Cuba to the United States. On the ship, Cinque, played by Djimon Hounsou, leads the slaves in a revolt where they end up prisoners in Connecticut.
A freed slave, Theodore Johnson, played by Morgan Freeman, hears about these prisoners and recruits the help of a property attorney, Roger Sherman Baldwin, played by Matthew McConaughey, to defend and exonerate them. In the end, they win the support of John Quincy Adams, played by Anthony Hopkins.
A Civil Action – Jan Schlichtmann – 1998
This film written and directed by Steven Zaillian, stars John Travolta as a personal injury attorney, Jan Schlichtmann, who finds himself in the middle of what appears to be a normal case. However, it ends up being so complicated that he’s afraid it will do him in.
The case revolves around a true story about a major company that is responsible for contaminating a town’s water supply, causing several of its citizens to develop leukemia. Schlichtmann goes up against a powerhouse attorney played by Robert Duval in an attempt to hold the company accountable and make them pay.
Famous Movie Lawyers in 2000 – 2010
Erin Brockovich – Ed Masry – 2000
This movie is based on a true story about a woman, Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, who battled a giant energy corporation, Pacific Gas and Electric, after she learned they were covering up the knowledge that a local community’s water was contaminated and causing the citizens to become seriously sick.
Steven Soderbergh directed this film, and the attorney, Ed Masry, is played by Albert Finney. Masry ends up hiring Brockovich as a legal assistant on the case, and the two battle the energy company head-on.
Legally Blonde – Elle Wood – 2001
In this legal comedy, Reese Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, a Californian sorority girl who follows her ex-boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, played by Matthew Davis, to Harvard Law School. On the night she thinks he is proposing marriage, he breaks up with her, so she follows him to try to win him back.
While in law school, she finds her true passion for law and struggles to overcome the challenges of her first year of law school. The comedy follows her as she blossoms into a confident, successful attorney.
Runaway Jury – Wendell Rohr – 2003
In this film directed by Gary Fleder, a widow whose husband was killed in an office massacre with a gun that was too easy to acquire, is suing the gun manufacturer. She has hired Wendell Rohr, played by Dustin Hoffman, to represent her.
The gun company hires a jury consultant, Rankin Fitch, played by Gene Hackman, to find a jury that will lean more on the side of the gun manufacturer’s favor.
However, what Fitch doesn’t expect is a solitary juror, Nicholas Easter, played by John Cusack, and his girlfriend, Marlee, played by Rachel Weisz, seem to have an ability to sway the jury to deliver a verdict whichever way they choose. Their job? To sell the jury to the highest bidder.
Michael Clayton – Michael Clayton – 2007
Directed by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, is a consultant and “fixer” of legal mishaps for a major New York Law firm. He’s also a compulsive gambler and owes a lot of people money.
After a colleague, Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson, has a mental breakdown in the middle of a significant case, Edens is called in to fix the problem.
The case Edens was working on involved a chemical company, U-North, that was being sued for distributing a weed killer that causes cancer. The problems began when Edens started claiming he had proof that the company was guilty. Soon, U-North’s leader, Karen Crowder, played by Tilda Swinton, takes care of the problem by having Edens killed and making it look like a suicide. When Clayton learns that Edens was telling the truth about the company’s guilt, he is faced with some big decisions.
Famous Movie Lawyers in 2010 – Present
The Conspirator – Frederick Aiken – 2010
This movie, directed by Robert Redford, tells the story of all that follows the assassination of President Lincoln. Following the president’s assassination, seven men and one woman were arrested on a charge of conspiracy to assassinate the president and secretary of state.
The woman, Mary Surratt, played by Robin Wright, is represented by attorney Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy. Surratt owns the boarding house where it is said that the other men, including John Wilkes Booth, met and planned their crimes. However, Aiken believes she is innocent and works hard on her defense, proving that she, in reality, is being used to try to capture her son and another suspect who is still at large.
Lincoln Lawyer – Mick Haller – 2011
This movie, directed by Brad Furman, follows Mick Haller, played by Matthew McConaughey, a defense attorney who runs his law practice from a Lincoln Continental. Haller typically represents petty criminals until one day he is given the opportunity to defend a wealthy Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Ross Roulet, played by Ryan Phillippe. Roulet is accused of attempted murder.
In the beginning, Haller thinks it will be an open-and-shut case. However, as things progress, he realizes that things are deeper than he thought and discovers that this case is connected to a previous case of his.
Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson – 2019
In this film directed by Destin Danial Cretton, Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, is a newly Harvard Law School graduate. He travels to Alabama to help represent poor people on death row who cannot afford an attorney. He teams up with Eva Ansley and starts an organization called Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery.
On a trip to the prison, he meets inmate Walter (Johnny D.) McMillian, played by Jamie Foxx. Johnny D. is an African-American man convicted of murdering an 18-year-old white girl. After reviewing the evidence, Stevenson realizes that the prosecutors built a case against Johhny D., solely on a testimony provided by convicted felon Ralph Myers, played by Tim Blake Nelson.
Meyers provided this testimony in exchange for a plea deal and a leaner sentence in his own pending trial. Stevenson encounters a lot of racism and legal and political manipulation as he battles to prove that Johnny D. is innocent.
Dark Waters – Robert Bilott – 2019
In this film directed by Todd Haynes, Attorney Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, is an Ohio lawyer who works for a prestigious law firm that represents major corporations, including DuPont, a powerful chemical manufacturer. Yet this time, Bilott decides to help a small-town cattle farmer, Wilber Tennant, played by Bill Camp, from Parkersburg, West Virginia. This farmer is convinced that DuPont has poisoned the nearby water supply, and as a result, all of his cattle are getting sick, going insane, and dying.
Bilott, an intelligent, ethical man, is financially and politically outshined trying to prove that DuPont has been dumping toxic waste into the West Virginia ground, causing cancer, distemper, and rotting teeth in both humans and animals.
In conclusion, I hope you enjoy this list of great movies depicting famous lawyer actors who will be remembered for many years to come.
You can find many of these movies on Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, and Hulu. So the next time you have a day off, sit back and relax, take a load off your feet and enjoy a great courtroom drama.
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Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.