There are lawyers we love to love and lawyers we love to hate. They sit on all sides of the moral compass but we love them because they give us drama, action, humour, suspense and ethics all in one – they remind us of what it is to be human, to fight against the odds, to stick up for what’s right and, sometimes, what it feels like to cross that line.

Here’s my top 10 movie lawyers of all time. Of course, this list is always going to be contentious as we all have our favourite big screen lawyers. I had such a hard time choosing the final 10, I’ve put in a couple of special mentions at the end. Here’s the ones I can’t forget – the memorable, the flawed, the cool, fun, likeable, the good, the bad and the ugly. You can handle the truth, can’t you?

1. Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee – A Few Good Men (1992)

A Few Good Men - Daniel Kaffee  Source: Columbia Pictures

Daniel Kaffee – A Few Good Men                Source: Columbia Pictures

Tom Cruise has taken a bit of a press beating since Scientology took hold. Like or hate him, though, his high octane performance as Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men is one of his greatest performances of all time. The fact that most people have yelled out “You can’t handle the truth!” or “You want me on that wall! You need me on that wall!” at some stage in their lives (haven’t they?), whether drunk, sober, in the shower, or in a bar fight with their best mate, is testament to Cruise’s electric performance. Kaffee is the young, plea bargaining Navy JAG litigator who reluctantly agrees to defend two low-ranking Marines, charged with murdering a fellow Marine at the naval base, allegedly part of an unofficial pun­ishment known as a “code red.” Of course, all the right ingredients were there to produce this performance: Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator) script, Rob Reiner direction, a formidable courtroom opponent played brilliantly by Kevin Bacon, and the unforgettable Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup.


Daniel Kaffee: “I want the truth!”

Daniel Kaffee: “Don’t call me son. I’m a lawyer, and an officer in the United States Navy, and you’re under arrest, you son of a bitch. The witness is excused.”

2. Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich - Erin Brockovich          Source: Universal Pictures

Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich          Source: Universal Pictures

It’s not surprising Julia Roberts received Hollywood’s curvy golden prize for her sassy, bold, heart warming portrayal of the real Erin Brockovich. Playing the down and out single Mum and paralegal turned legal crusader against energy giant, Pacific Gas & Electric, she reveals the company has been illegally dumping highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the local water source. Albert Finney also does a wonderfully grumpy but loveable turn as her boss, Ed Masry. Part of one of the largest civil law suits in US history, we love Erin because she never gives up, she has a lot of fun with female stereotypes in the conservative legal world, she’s got some lip and she’s on the side of those who can’t afford to access justice and fight for themselves.


Brockovich: “They’re called boobs, Ed.”

Brockovich (to Masry): “Do they teach lawyers to apologize? ’Cause you suck at it.”

3. Atticus Finch – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Atticus Finch - To Kill A Mockingbird          Source:

Atticus Finch – To Kill A Mockingbird             Source: Universal Internationl

How can we go past Gregory Peck’s distinguished Atticus Finch? With Harper Lee’s second book due to be released to the public, it’s a timely reminder of the classic book which introduced us to the iconic small-town attorney who remains close to our hearts. Defending a crippled black man on trial, Finch is the dignified defender, the man who represents a man falsely accused of rape by a lonely, young white woman. Finch’s quiet, self-assured courage, unswerving faith in the rule of law, belief in equality and moral fortitude is revered by generations of lawyers. Finch is the lawyer we aspire to be, defending his client without fear or favour.


Atticus Finch: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

4. Elle Woods – Legally Blonde (2001)

Elle Woods - Legally Blonde          Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Elle Woods – Legally Blonde          Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Some might argue she’s flighty or vacuous, but Elle Woods is the kind of sharp, sweet, hip-swinging lawyer that just brings a smile to your face. I am pretty certain a lot of young girls went to law school solely because of this film. A bit of tongue in cheek humour and fun never goes in astray in a strapped-up profession that is obsessed with rules. Reese Witherspoon delivers this in spades as Elle Woods. Elle’s Harvard Law School audition video is absolute gold – I only wish I had thought of it first. Even with its cheesy ending and predictable plot,and there’s some unexpected commentary about sexism and discrimination in the film (albeit through the eyes of a wealthy white girl). In the end, Elle wants to help people, gives Warner Huntington III the royal flick and stands up for what she believes in – what’s not to love about a lawyer like that?


Elle’s father: “Oh, sweetheart, you don’t need law school. Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious. And you, button, are none of those things.”

Elle: [after Warner asks her out after the trial] “But if I’m going to be a partner in a law firm by the time I’m 30, I need a boyfriend who’s not such a complete bonehead.”

Elle: “For that matter, any masturbatory emissions, where the sperm is clearly not seeking an egg, could be termed reckless abandonment.”

5. Jake Tyler Brigance – Time To Kill (1996)

Jake Tyler Brigance - Time To Kill          Source: Warner Bros

Jake Tyler Brigance – Time To Kill          Source: Warner Bros

Apart from the fact that Matthew McConaughey’s devastatingly ‘deep south’ good looks are hard to take your eyes off (Magic Mike – hello?), his role as Jake Brigance in this film is as gutsy and inspiring as it is heartbreaking. A charming, whisky-loving lawyer with a slightly wandering eye decides to represent a black man who shot and killed his daughter’s rapist. With echoes of Atticus Finch, Brigance is a lawyer with commitment and heart. McConaughey gives a spellbinding courtroom closing address and its really his flaws that make him so real and relatable. He’s a guy who drinks a bit too much, flirts with his attractive sidekick (hey it is Sandra Bullock after all) and gets a bit hot under the collar. Brigance is feisty and full of testosterone and we love it that he fights the good fight.


Jake Tyler Brigance: “Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.”

6. Martin Vail – Primal Fear (1996)

Martin Vail – Primal Fear            Source:  Paramount Pictures

Martin Vail – Primal Fear         Source: Paramount Pictures

It’s a different role for Richard Gere who we’re used to seeing in slightly more soppy or romantic roles. In this, Gere plays Marty Vail, a money hungry defence lawyer who doesn’t really care about the truth, the self-proclaimed “hot shot” attorney who loves the spotlight, thrives on legal technicalities and wants to win. Vail is memorable in this role, however, for his transformation from self-centred Chicago attorney to a man who truly believes his altar boy client is innocent of murder charges and defends him with vigour.


Marty: “Why gamble with money when you can gamble with people’s lives? That was a joke. All right, I’ll tell you. I believe in the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty. I believe in that notion because I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things.”

Marty: “On my first day of law school, my professor says two things. First was; “From this day forward, when your mother tells you she loves you – get a second opinion.”

Jack Connerman: [chuckles] And?

Marty: “If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you wanna get fucked, go to court.”

7. Rudy Baylor and Deck Shifflet – The Rainmaker (1997)

Rudy Baylor and Deck Shifflet - The Rainmaker         Source: Paramount Pictures

Rudy Baylor and Deck Shifflet – The Rainmaker           Source: Paramount Pictures

An unlikely duo, Deck (Danny De Vito) and Rudy (Matt Damon) give us two lawyers for the price of one in an “insurance bad faith” case where the Davids take on the Goliaths in the quest for social justice. The shonky old insurance assessor turned paralegal and the naïve young lawyer are strung together in a story with triumphs and trials and ethical issues galore. It’s the sheer determination of this muddling pair I like best. Despite so many things going wrong with the trial, Rudy’s searing cross-examination of the insurance bad guy, Wilfred Keeley, at the end finally brings home a verdict for the plaintiff with the compensation ordered far exceeding expectations. So he’s not just another shark in the dirty water – in fact, he decides to teach legal ethics and leave the profession after this case.


Rudy Baylor: “Every lawyer in every case feels himself crossing a line he doesn’t really mean to cross. It just happens. And if you cross it enough times, it disappears forever. And then you’re nothing but another lawyer joke. Just another shark in the dirty water.”

8. Frank Galvin – The Verdict (1982)

Frank Galvin – The Verdict               Source: 20th Century Fox

Frank Galvin – The Verdict               Source: 20th Century Fox

Enter washed-up, alcoholic Boston lawyer looking for redemption, played by Paul Newman in an Oscar-nominated performance. Given an easy medical malpractice suit to settle and win, “a moneymaker”, disillusioned Galvin decides to fix his career and achieve a better result for his clients by going to trial. You can’t help but be lured in by Galvin’s intense sincerity and swept away by Newman’s frenetic, desperate performance. The film begs the question: what do you do when losing is not an option?


Galvin: There are no other cases. This is the case. There are no other cases. This is the case.

Maureen Rooney: “You know, you guys are all the same. You don’t care who you hurt. All you care about is the dollar, you’re a bunch of whores. You got no loyalty, no nothing. You’re a bunch of whores!”

9. Andrew Beckett – Philadelphia (1993)

Andrew Beckett – Philadelphia               Source: TriStar Pictures

Andrew Beckett – Philadelphia              Source: TriStar Pictures

Inspired in part by the real life case of Geoffrey Bowers, Hanks gives an Oscar-winning performance as Andrew Beckett, the Ivy-educated lawyer whose employment is terminated when his law firm discovers he has contracted AIDS. Denzel Washington as Joe Miller also deserves a mention here for his stellar performance as the personal injury lawyer who takes on Beckett’s case and in doing so comes to terms with his own homophobia, on the brink of tears when Beckett dances to Maria Callas’s “La Mamma Morta” with his IV stand. In the first mainstream movie to tackle the AIDs crisis, Beckett is the lawyer who won’t be bullied by bigots and battles on despite his ailing health. Beckett stands for courage in a world filled with discrimination.


Joe Miller: “What do you love about the law, Andrew?

Andrew Beckett: I… many things… uh… uh… What I love the most about the law?

Joe Miller: Yeah.

Andrew Beckett: 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.”

Joe Miller: “We’re standing here in Philadelphia, the, uh, city of brotherly love, the birthplace of freedom, where the, uh, founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal.”

10. Major J F Thomas – Breaker Morant (1980)

Major J F Thomas - Breaker Morant               Source: Roadshow Entertainment

Major J F Thomas – Breaker Morant           Source: Roadshow Entertainment

Jack Thompson plays the slightly dishevelled Major James Francis Thomas in this wonderful Australian film directed by Bruce Beresford based on a true story. The real Major J F Thomas earned world fame at the South African War in 1902 for the defence of Harry “The Breaker” Morant, but he was apparently known in Tenterfield long before that, for his sense of justice and fair play. A country lawyer out of his depth (my little bit of trivia: the real Thomas once lived in my great grandfather’s house in Tenterfield, NSW), the local wills and conveyancing solicitor is thrust into the role of defence attorney, representing three fellow coun­trymen fighting for the British Empire and are tried and convicted of war crimes in the colonial Boer War. Part Daniel Kaffee, part Dennis Denuto, Jack Thompson stands in a bare, cold courtroom with no witness box and no fanfare and delivers a fiery cross examination in defence of his clients. It’s an honest portrayal of a man simply doing his best to achieve justice in the toughest of circumstances. I highly recommend this film – it has one of the greatest and most moving final scenes in movie history, according to little old moi.

Major Thomas: [in court, questioning Corporal Sharp] “Have you not been saying in the local pubs that you would walk barefoot from Cape Town to Petersburg to be on a firing party to shoot Lieutenant Handcock?
Corporal Sharp: [visibly shaken] Well, sir I might have said something like that over a pint, sir. It may have been the beer talking, sir, not me, sir.”

Peter Handcock: “New South Wales Mounted? What sort of a lawyer are you?
Major Thomas: They haven’t locked me up, yet. What sort of a soldier are you?”

Special mentions:

Fred Gailey – Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Fred Gailey: “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to. Don’t you see? It’s not just Kris that’s on trial, it’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.”

Vincent Gambini – My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Vinny Gambini: [opening statements] “Uh… everything that guy just said is bullshit… Thank you.”

Mitch McDeere – The Firm (1993)

Mitch McDeere: “You want to know something funny? You actually made me think about the law. I managed to go through three years of law school without doing that.”

Arthur Kirkland – And Justice for All (1979)

Arthur Kirkland: “The one thing that bothered me, the one thing that stayed in my mind and I couldn’t get rid of it, that haunted me, was ‘why?’ Why would she lie? What was her motive for lyin’? If my client is innocent, she’s lying. Why? Was it blackmail? No. Was it jealousy? No. Yesterday, I found out why. She doesn’t have a motive. You know why? Because she’s not lying. And ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution is not gonna get that man today. No! Because I’m gonna get him! My client, the Honorable Henry T. Fleming, should go right to fuckin’ jail! The son of a bitch is guilty! This man is guilty! That man, there, that man is a slime! He is a slime! If he’s allowed to go free, then something really wrong is goin’ on here! That man is guilty! That man, there, that man is a slime! He is a slime! If he’s allowed to go free, then something really wrong is goin’ on here!”   {Editor note: Take that Dog Day Afternoon! Gotta love Pacino}

Fletcher – Liar, Liar (1997)

Office Worker: Hey, Fletcher, how’s it hanging?

Fletcher: [groans] Short, shriveled, and always to the left.


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