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 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)
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.
“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)
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.
“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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
“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 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.
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