Lawyers get a lot of flak in popular culture, but the law continues to fascinate people, which is why some of the most popular books, TV shows and movies seem to focus on the law and the work of lawyers.
Here we take a look at movies with memorable legal quotes that resonate with the viewer for various reasons, from the truth of the statement to the comedic value. Some of the movies are based on true stories and others on total works of fiction, but all make for very interesting entertainment. So, in the order in which they were released, here are the top 20 legal quotes from movies.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do."
When defense attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) uttered these words, he was actually speaking about a woman’s slow death from morphine addiction. However, some tenacious defense teams have experienced the euphoria of living this statement; look no further than the first trials of O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers, and—more recently—that of Casey Anthony.
2. The Verdict (1982)
"Your honor, with all due respect, if you're going to try my case for me, I wish you wouldn't lose it."
Downtrodden plaintiff attorney Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) made this comment in frustration to a clearly biased Judge Hoyle, whose line of questioning was supporting the defense’s position. Sometimes, unless checked, judges do get carried away and will run the case for either the prosecution or the defense.
3–4. War of the Roses (1989)
"There is no winning! Only degrees of losing!"
Divorce attorney Gavin D’Amato (Danny DeVito) was advising friend and fellow attorney, Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas), on his bitter divorce from Barbara Rose (Kathleen Turner). However, both parties can "win," so choose a non-aggressive divorce attorney or opt for mediation. The idea of mediation is hard if you really dislike each other as much as the Roses did, but it will save you money and your sanity.
D'Amato: "We came from mud. And after 3.8 billion years of evolution, at our core is still mud. Nobody can be a divorce attorney and doubt that."
Yes, all common sense and decency can fly out the window when feuding parties decide to divorce and let litigious attorneys take control.
5. Presumed Innocent (1990)
"I’m going to need a lawyer, a very, very good lawyer, an expensive lawyer. It could break us."
So said prosecuting attorney, Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford), on learning that he was the only suspect in the murder of his colleague and mistress, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi). He was right—it could break you. Under the U.S. Constitution, anyone charged with murder has a right to legal representation and will get a court-appointed lawyer if they cannot afford one. The reality, though, is that the best trial lawyers do tend to be very, very expensive and people do lose their homes in order to pay their attorneys.
6–7. My Cousin Vinny (1992)
"Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you."
This was the unexpected response from defense attorney, Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci), when asked by the judge if he wished to make an opening statement after the prosecution attorney had just delivered his own opening statement.
Another gem was uttered by Vinny when the judge angrily asked the green attorney why he had not followed previous instructions to dress appropriately when appearing in his court.
"You were serious about that?" asked Vinny, clad in a leather suit and cowboy boots. Vinny was carted off to jail for contempt of court. Moral of the story: do not ask a judge if he/she is serious; just assume that he/she always is and it will work better for your case. Furthermore, if you are acting as a pro se litigant, do remember to check the court’s dress code in advance.
8–9. A Few Good Men (1992)
"You can't handle the truth!"
This outburst on the witness stand was provoked from the lips of Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) by dogged military lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), defending two U.S. marines charged with killing a fellow marine.
As any lawyer will tell you, there is plenty of truth in attorney Kaffee’s statement:
"It doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove."
Even if you think your case is a slam dunk, your attorney may well think otherwise.
10. The Firm (1993)
Here's another quote by Tom Cruise, who this time plays a new associate, Mitch McDeere, in a law firm that is not all that it seems to be:
"I discovered the law again. You actually made me think about it. I managed to get through three years of law school without doing that."
It would be really interesting to know what lawyers at law school do think about.
11–12. Philadelphia (1993)
Denzel Washington starred as defense attorney, Joe Miller, representing HIV-infected attorney Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks). In the courtroom, the judge stated that justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation.
Miller: "With all due respect, your Honor, we don’t live in this courtroom do we?"
This was attorney Beckett’s response when Miller asked his ill client what he loved about law:
"It’s that every now and again—not often, but occasionally—you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens."
Yes, the lawyers are just as cynical as the general public about the proportion of cases that actually do achieve justice through the courts.
13–14. The People v. Larry Flynt (1996)
"I am not trying to suggest that you should like what Larry Flynt does. I don't like what Larry Flynt does."
Alan Isaacman (Ed Norton) is the attorney for Hustler publisher, Flynt (Woody Harrelson), and takes this brutally honest approach to the jury in court. Many lawyers do not like their clients' morals or the businesses in which they engage, but everyone is entitled to legal representation.
Here's a statement from Flynt himself, which perhaps demonstrates why few attorneys would turn away a client like him:
"I'm your dream client. I'm the most fun, I'm rich and I'm always in trouble."
15–16. The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
"Law is the ultimate backstage pass. There are now more students in law schools than lawyers walking the streets."
Said the decidedly devilish lawyer, John Milton (Al Pacino). It does seem like that, but look on the positive side: there will be no shortage of attorneys in the future and you are sure to find one in times of need. Milton also delivered this choice line:
"Law is the devil’s ministry."
Remember, this is a movie about the devil, so murmuring "Amen" would be completely inappropriate.
17. A Civil Action (1998)
Plaintiff attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) delivers a bleak truth:
"The odds of a plaintiff’s lawyer winning in civil court are two to one against. Think about that for a second. Your odds of surviving a game of Russian roulette are better than winning a case at trial. Twelve times better."
This film is based on a true story. There is a real attorney named Jan Schlichtmann and he should know.
18. Double Jeopardy (1999)
"It's the first rule of being a lawyer. What we think doesn’t matter."
Family friend and attorney, Bobby (Jay Brazeau), undoubtedly disappointed Libby Parsons (Ashley Judd) with his response to her questioning whether he thought she was guilty of murdering her husband. Lawyers are mainly concerned with evidence and proof.
19–20. Erin Brockovich (2000)
Throughout the multi-plaintiff-contaminated water case, Erin (Julia Roberts) worked with brash old lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney), and there came a point where Masry realized that Erin was right, although he had considerable difficulty saying so.
Erin: "Do they teach lawyers to apologize? Because you suck at it!"
Apologizing is not really something that lawyers are known for, which may be one of the reasons behind the final quote:
Erin: "I hate lawyers; I just work for them."
Plenty of legal assistants, paralegals and even fellow associates feel exactly the same way!