The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

Guest post by Jeff Cohen.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Was it because of amazing attorneys you idolized as a kid? Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Justice Brandeis, Marcia Clark?

No way! It was because of awesome legal eagles you saw in the movies. You wanted to mesmerize that jury, defend the innocent, prosecute the guilty and look damn fine doing it. As an attorney and big movie buff, I have strong feelings about who the best lawyers in movie history are. Perhaps you do as well.

Check out my list and let me know your thoughts.

5. Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) in “Carlito’s Way” (1993)

sean penn dave kleinfeld The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

Sean Penn is always great, but wow! He really crushed it as Kleinfeld in “Carlito’s Way.” Kleinfeld deserves to make this list just for being able to pull off that amazing Jew-fro/three piece suit combo.

On one hand, his character is an over the top cocaine snorting, illicit sex having, drug lord defending 1970’s caricature. But, he is also a strong criminal attorney, vigorous advocate and good friend to Al Pacino’s Carlito Brigante. At least he is at the beginning of the film. Kleinfeld makes the quintessential attorney error. He blurs the line between being the principal and being the counselor. He represents crooks and thinks he can become one. The Shakespearean tragedy fueled by Klienfeld’s greed is my favorite part of the film.

Check out this clip from “Carlito’s Way.” [Warning: All the clips in this post are from MetaCafe, which makes it easy to find clips from movies in exchange for you enduring a shitty user experience full of as many ads as it can cram onto your screen. —Ed.]

“Dave, you not a lawyer no more, you a gangster now. On the other side. A whole new ball game. You can’t learn about it in school, and you can’t have a late start.”

4. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in “The Verdict” (1982)

paul newman verdict The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

We all know deep down that one day the accumulated toll of practicing law will turn us into jaded, burnt-out alcoholics. But, we hope, we wish, we pray that when we become jaded, burnt-out, alcoholic lawyers, we look one tenth as pretty as Paul Newman does portraying a jaded, burnt-out, alcoholic lawyer.

Frank Galvin is a once promising but down on his luck trial attorney. Turning to alcohol after a string of losses to drown his contempt for the system. He finds a chance to obtain justice for the family of a young woman put into a coma because of medical malpractice. He is David against the Goliaths of church, state and corporate power. By fighting for the interests of his comatose client he finds the strength to fight the demons within … .sorry, I’ll stop. I’m choking up.

Check out this clip of Frank Galvin’s summation to the jury.

“We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead. We think of ourselves as victims… and we become victims. We become… we become weak. We doubt ourselves, we doubt our beliefs. We doubt our institutions. And we doubt the law. But today you are the law. You ARE the law.”

3. Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (John Houseman) in “The Paper Chase” (1973)

houseman paper chase The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

John Houseman deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the pompous, prickish and powerful Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr.

Kingsfield is the genius Harvard Contracts Professor who lives to terrorize first year law students. In his nimble hands, the Socratic Method is a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. No character in cinema embodies the frightening aspects of law school more than Houseman’s Professor Kingsfield. Even thought John Houseman went on to play Ricky Schroder’s grand father on “Silver Spoons,” he still scares the hell out of me.

Check out this clip of Kingsfield reaming the film’s first year protagonist.

“Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.”

2. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962)

peck mockingbird The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

Atticus Finch. You almost don’t have to say anything else. Gregory Peck won the Best Actor Oscar and Golden Globe for his quiet, powerful portrayal in the screen adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel. Atticus is a lawyer, father and citizen. He represents the best that any of us can hope to be. He is selfless, fearless and unflinching. In the face of overwhelming prejudice and ignorance, he bravely defends a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman inAlabamaduring the early 1930’s. In 2003, The AFI named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Damn right.

Check out this clip of Atticus Finch with the kids.

Atticus: I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he’d rather I’d shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted – if I could hit ‘em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird.
Jem: Why?
Atticus: Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don’t do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat people’s gardens, don’t nest in the corncrib, they don’t do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.

1. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in “The God Father” (1972) and “The God Father: Part II” (1974)

duvall tom hagen The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie History

Some may feel this is a controversial pick. However, in my humble opinion, Duvall’s Tom Hagen most accurately and honestly captures the key element of being a lawyer: simultaneously being the ultimate insider and a complete outsider.  He is consiglieri to Don Vito Corleone and then to Don Michael Corleone. He is privy to their deepest secrets, speaks fluent Italian and flawlessly executes the will of his Don, his client, his family.

He is brother to Sonny and Fredo and Michael, but only in part. He is Irish and was taken in by the Corleone family after he ran away from an abusive alcoholic father. Part of the family, but not. Powerful, but in constant danger of his power being unilaterally revoked which happens when Michael Corleone temporarily demotes Tom as he is not a “wartime consiglieri.”

The brilliance of Duvall’s performance is in the tension of serving as counsel to his family while quietly longing to be part of his family. It’s a subtle and heartbreaking undercurrent through both films.  You can see it in his eyes.

Check out this clip of Tom Hagen’s response after calmly enduring a long winded tirade by mercurial movie mogul Jack Woltz.

“Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. Have your car take me to the airport. Mr Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once.”

Needless to say, it doesn’t turn out too well for Woltz.

Agree with my list? Think it’s rife with egregious absences? Let me know who your favorite film attorney is.

jeff cohen 150x150 The 5 Greatest Lawyers in Movie HistoryJeff B. Cohen, Esq. is a partner at the Beverly Hills based law firm of Cohen Gardner LLP which he co-founded in 2002. Cohen Gardner LLP focuses on corporate, technology, media and entertainment transactions. Jeff also has the dubious distinction of being a former child actor, appearing most notably in the Richard Donner/Steven Spielberg film “The Goonies,” but please don’t hold that against him. He’s also on Facebook and Twitter.

(photo: Video camera icon from Shutterstock)

  • http://www.PAinjurycase.com Dave S

    Frank Galvin was great. The Verdict is one of my all-time favorite movies. The courtroom scene with the Nurse (the doctor told me to “change the 1 to a 9″) was epic.
    Also:
    And Justice for All with Al Pacino, and
    Presumed Innocent (Harrison Ford).

  • http://www.marketingontrial.com Edward Granger – Marketing On Trial

    any honorable mentions?

  • Larry Silverman

    What. No mention of Vincent Gambini?

  • Mike

    Great list – Tom Hagen always tops my list as well.

    I’d add Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, Robert Duvall in A Civil Action and (my role model in law school) Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny.

  • DRB

    Matthew McConaughey in Lincoln Lawyer and Time to Kill.

  • http://www.alabamalitigationreview.com/ Jeff Blackwell

    I agree with your list with one exception. You left off Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. Look at the many hurdles he faced to win his case. I have been in courtrooms like the one presented in the movie. It is certainly not friendly territory for a New York lawyer (no disrespect intended to any New York lawyers).

  • David

    Two mob lawyers, a drunk, and a sadist. This is a representation of the best lawyers in film. Chunk, you’re better than this. How about:

    Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, playing a character modeled after Charles Darrow. How about Matthew McConaughey in EITHER: 1) Amistad, or 2) A Time to Kill. Charles Laughton representing Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution. Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More, defending himself in A Man for All Seasons.

    I think your list mistakenly sought lowest common demominator films about the law and just picked the lawyer from those films.

    • http://gyitsakalakis.com Gyi

      If we’re talking lowest common denominator, I would like to add David Kleinfeld.

      • http://gyitsakalakis.com Gyi

        Yes, I know he’s #5 above, but worth repeating, imho.

  • David

    Sidebar:

    Robert Shaw was awesome in A Man For All Seasons….and From Russia with Love … and The Sting … and Jaws…

    • http://gyitsakalakis.com Gyi Tsakalakis

      Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish Ladies,
      Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain;

  • Atty

    It occurs to me that there is a dearth of women lawyers in the movies. I can’t think of one I’d categorize as great. Maybe Susan Sarandon in The Client.

  • guest

    The best is George Sheffield from the Scarface deleted scene:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrj-kq0yfUI

    “Start with $1oo,000.00 cash on the table.”

  • Patrick

    Not the star of the film, but Raul Julia in Presumed Innocent should knock replace Houseman. Houseman is great in that film, but Julia’s Sandy Stern is a much better lawyer in film.

  • Kameron

    What about Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men? Great scene with him and Jack Nicholson is just classic.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hGvQtumNAY

  • J-Butt

    What about Elle Woods? I think she moved us all. ;)

  • Cato

    With the exception of Gregory Peck and John Houseman, the choices lack class. Charles Laughton from Witness for the Prosecution is a great one. And how about Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder?

    My number one choice is Paul Scofield as Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Every lawyer should be required to watch that movie. Every screenwriter, too.

  • Phil

    Howard Duff as John Shaunessy in Kramer v. Kramer. Another good example of what lawyers really do…zealous advocate in the courtroom when the lights come on, but explain the strengths and weaknesses of the case to the client behind the scenes.

  • Joel

    Denzel Washington in Philadelphia

  • http://LitigatorTechnology.com Nancy Patterson

    Awesome list of 5 great Lawyers in movies! Fun! Our Top G8R list of courtroom movies may be of interest: http://wp.me/p2vuVI-7e

    Nancy

  • Tere

    I agree with all the above, except Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. In fact, my all time favorite is Paul Newman in the Verdict due to its so realistic portrayal of a broken lawyer and his subsequent rise again notwithstanding his lack of corruption. The Contracts professor in Paper Chase is spot on and reminds me of one of my law professors in my first year of Civil Procedure. There are so many other greats, thoughs-what about:

    Tom Cruise – A Few Good Men (the unlikely x-exam)
    John Travolta – A Civil Action (amazing)
    Denzel Washington – Philadelphia
    Maximilian Schell – Judment at Nuremberg
    Spencer Tracy – Inherit the Wind

  • http://www.marketingontrial.com Edward Granger

    I really liked Micheal Clayton even if he wasn’t actually a full blown lawyer.

  • http://daltonlawpllc.com/ Paul Dalton

    Another to consider: Jimmy Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder”

  • Randy Gordon

    I think it’s time you expanded your list to the TOP TEN.
    In a Civil Action, both John Travolta and Robert Duvall were phenomenal. Duvall was bone-chillingly accurate and dead-on as the defense attorney. In the Verdict, wasn’t James Mason amazing as the Prince of Darkness. I agree on My Cousin Vinny which has been used as an example of expert witness testimony in my Remedies class for years. “inherit the Wind” was a classic. Thanks for a great blog. – Randy

  • connie davis

    Keir Duela in”Madamn X”

  • http://www.cnrlawyers.com/ Chucker Reibach

    I love the Gregory Peck choice as a classic. A more modern version of a lawyer who did a good job on screen was Matthew McConaughey aas Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1189340/ – I also agree Denzel did a great job in Philadelphia.

  • A.G. Chapa

    Al Pacino ~~~~~~~~~> Devil’s Advocate
    Richard Gere ~~~~~~~~~> Primal Fear
    Tom Cruise ~~~~~~~~~>The Firm