Top Ten Fictitious Lawyers in TV and Film

By Keisha Mello-Hall

Be honest with yourself, a small part of the reason why you’re in law school is because you watched a legal movie while you were growing up with a totally wicked lawyer. You saw that lawyer completely own the courtroom and a voice inside your head said, “That could be me!” Sure, if you watched those movies now, you would see how completely inaccurate their depictions of what happens in the courtroom are. However, at one point in time, they probably inspired you to take the leap of faith and go to law school. With that in mind, here’s a list of the fictitious lawyers that inspired me. If you’ve made it this far in life without watching them, I both applaud and abhor you. WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

  1. Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    • Charlie Kelly is not a real attorney, but he delivers his nonsensical legal jargon with something crucial to every trial attorney – confidence. His naïve self-assurance allows him to represent the gang against The Lawyer on multiple occasions. Despite his nonexistent legal education, Charlie Kelly never backs down from a challenge. When he is besmirched, he demands He knows “a lot about the law and various other lawyerings,” so don’t even think about going toe-to-toe with Charlie on bird law.
  1. Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) and Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall)– The Judge
  • This movie did not do too well with the critics, which is completely understandable given its somewhat cliché and overreaching storyline (seriously, there are like twenty subplots). Like every other character he plays (e.g., Ironman, Sherlock Holmes, etc.), Downey’s Hank Palmer is a witty know-it-all with questionable morals, who inevitably reveals he actually has a heart. Even though this is a character that everyone knows is well within Downey’s wheelhouse, no one can deny that he plays the part well. His sharp verbal sparring is flawless, both inside and out of the courtroom. The only other actor that can hold the audience is Robert Duvall (when he stops mumbling and instead delivers his lines coherently). If only the ambiguous incest subplot (I kid you not) and lackluster romance between Downey and Vera Farmiga ended up on the cutting room floor, then these two wouldn’t be at the bottom of this list.
  1. Jeffrey Winger (Joel McHale) – Community
  • Jeff Winger was a successful defense attorney before the state bar found out he faked his bachelor’s degree. Despite this setback in his career, Jeff Winger uses his charming personality and wit to manipulate any situation he faces while enrolled at Greendale Community College. He constantly gives his study group rousing speeches, and initially credits his persuasiveness to his ability to do the job without involving his personal feelings. However, the study group slowly tears down Winger’s walls, and he finds that fighting for the people he loves is better than winning just for the sake of winning. Still, his arguments before this self-realization are gold! Take this incredible Winger argument, “I discovered at a very early age that if I talk long enough, I can make anything right or wrong. So either I’m God or truth is relative. In either case, booyah!” 
  1. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) – Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad
  • Better Call Saul follows the story of James McGill before he becomes Breaking Bad’s iconic Saul Goodman. Prior to his career as Walter White’s attorney, we see Saul struggling to strike a balance between caring for his ill brother and establishing himself as an attorney.  From memorable quips to over the top tie patterns, Saul Goodman ranks as one of the most noteworthy TV attorneys. “Don’t drink and drive, but if you do call me.”
  1. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) – The Verdict
  • Paul Newman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic ambulance chaser who is handed a medical malpractice case (wouldn’t that be nice). Galvin represents a woman left in a vegetative state after she was given an anesthetic that caused her to choke on her own vomit (allegedly). His closing argument, while calling for jury nullification by telling them, “You are the law,” is still an incredibly powerful scene that would make anyone want to be a litigator.
  1. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – The Dark Knight
  • Where Batman Forever failed, The Dark Knight succeeded in showing Harvey Dent’s transition from an upstanding and moralistic district attorney to the hideously scarred villain, “Two-Face.” Along with Commissioner Gordon and Batman, Harvey Dent tries to rid Gotham of its rampant crime problem, but does so using our favorite tool – the law. Unlike that darn vigilante Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent refuses to accept the inherent corruption of the system, and instead fights for a system that is pure and just. Eventually that idealism runs out and he becomes a disfigured murderer, but we all have our faults.
  1. Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) – A Few Good Men
  • I’m a sucker for anything written by Aaron Sorkin (Moviegoer’ Tip: Go see Steve Jobs!), so naturally this movie lands fairly high on my list. However, it isn’t necessarily Lieutenant Kaffee’s lawyering that makes this film noteworthy. At first, Lieutenant Kaffee is presented as a lazy and inexperienced lawyer in the U.S. Navy, with a reputation for just working out plea deals to avoid going to trial. His redeeming moment comes when he catches Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson, in a lie. Lieutenant Kaffee’s cross-examination of Colonel Jessup leads to the iconic line, “You can’t handle the truth!” and the Colonel’s confession to ordering the “code red” that led to a Marine’s death. The chances of getting a confession from a witness on the stand are extremely low, but that won’t keep trial attorneys from nixing this beautiful moment from their practice goals.
  1. Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) – Erin Brockovich
  • Julia Roberts won the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA for Best Actress for her performance as Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three who gets a job as a file clerk. Although she’s technically not an attorney, Erin Brockovich proves to be a fierce adversary to the PG&E Company. She takes it upon herself to dig into the corporation’s use of chromium in the groundwater in Hinkley, California. After Brockovich convinces 634 class action plaintiffs to agree to her supervisor’s plan to request disposition by binding authority, PG&E settles the case for $333 million. The real Erin Brockovich is now an exemplary environmental activist, who shows that hard work and a genuine interest are vital to a case’s success.
  1. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) – To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Everyone always expects Mr. Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch to be at the top of the list. However, I do not like living up to people’s expectations, so Mr. Peck gets second on my list. Nevertheless, this truly is an incredible movie, and Atticus Finch is the model attorney that should be the north point of our moral compasses. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the local town lawyer who lives by the adage, “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself.”
  1. Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) – My Cousin Vinny
  • Billy Gambini and Stan Rothenstein are wrongfully accused of killing a convenience store clerk after the two admit to shoplifting from the store just moments before the murder. Billy calls upon his cousin, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, to represent them in their murder trial. Despite having absolutely no trial experience and only recently being admitted to the bar (after six attempts), Vinny accepts the case. He’s clearly out of his league when he delivers his opening statement, “Uh…everything that guy just said is bullshit…Thank you.” However, he uses his limited resources (e.g., his fiancé as an expert witness) and forceful questioning style to build a viable defense, and manages to get all of the charges dismissed. It’s his persistence and creativity that puts Cousin Vinny at the top of this list.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) – Chicago

  • Billy Flynn clearly has a broken Atticus Finch moral compass. He’s actually a terrible lawyer, only helping the clients that get his name and photo on the front page. However, he does it while singing and tap-dancing, so he gets an honorable mention.

Elle Woods – Legally Blonde

  • Just an honorable mention suggested by Dillon Jones. However, to be fair, who hasn’t quoted Legally Blonde at least once since going to law school? What, like it’s hard?

Harvey Spector – Suits

  • I have never watched this show, which apparently is sacrilegious. I’m sorry, but aside from Mr. Robot, I’m just not a big fan of what the USA network produces. However, since the majority of law students are fans, I felt obligated to include this honorable mention.

 

 

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