There are hundreds of legal movies out there. Classics like 12 Angry Men and To Kill a Mockingbird, comedies like My Cousin Vinny, and murder mysteries, like Witness for the Prosecution or Anatomy of a Murder. But some of our favorites are films that champion social justice, the ability of the little guy to take on the giant, and to end wrongful misconduct of corporations, or even the government itself.
All of these films tackle important, real issues in the world: issues like gender, race, or sexual discrimination, environmental issues, medical malpractice, and flawed legal systems. Another theme that runs through many of these films is how the issue at stake transforms whoever it touches.
The lawyers in these films come into a case thinking one way, and they leave a different, better person.
Here are our top ten picks for legal movies that champion the little guy – and the lawyers who help them achieve justice.
This powerful film explores two difficult issues at once: employment discrimination, and HIV/AIDS patients’ experience in the world during the early 1990s. Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a successful lawyer who’s fired from his law firm due to losing a piece of documentation during a case. Beckett suspects that this isn’t really why he was fired, but because he had a visible sarcoma and the partners were discriminating against him for having AIDS. He takes his case to Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) who initially turns him down, due to homophobia and ignorance, but later takes his case. Beckett and Miller become friends through the experience, and Beckett wins his case in the end. But the real victory of this film is how it had a rippling effect throughout American culture through the 90s: HIV/AIDS was destigmatized, true information about the disease was shared, and victims were shown not as being at fault, but just that: people suffering from a disease.
2. A Civil Action
With an all-star cast of John Travolta, Robert Duvall, James Gandolfini, John Lithgow, and William H. Macy, this film is worth a view just for its performances. Based on a true story, it follows Travolta’s character, Jan Schlichtmann, who takes on a lawsuit because he thinks it will be profitable for his firm. His expensive taste and attitudes are changed as he finds out more and more about the truth of what happened: Two large corporations are responsible for contaminating the drinking water of the town with an industrial chemical, causing many children to die from leukemia. For Schlichtmann and the people of the community, the case doesn’t turn out as they’d hoped. The lawsuit is dismissed and Schlichtmann and his firm are bankrupt and broken up. But in the long run, the Environmental Protection Agency successfully brought the case back, and the community won millions of dollars, as well as having their water restored to healthy levels.
3. Erin Brockovich
Based on a true story, Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts), the film’s eponymous protagonist, builds a case for one of the largest class-action lawsuits ever. It’s a classic underdog story. Brockovich is a single mother, struggling to keep working as a law clerk, while the antagonist of the film is a massive, investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas & Electric. Through research and local interviews, Brockovich discovers that PG&E has been suspiciously generous with medical help for the people of Hinkley, California. When she digs into why they would want to help, she discovers a coverup: of they’ve been dumping chromium into wastewater areas around Hinkley, causing medical issues for many of the town’s residents. The case resulting from Brockovich’s fierce determination culminates in a $333 million settlement, paid out by PG&E. While no amount of money could make up for the way people’s lives are affected, they do receive justice, truth, and change for the better in their community.
4. Michael Clayton
While Erin Brockovich takes a similar serious topic and adds a sense of humor and levity, Michael Clayton lives on the other end of the spectrum. This tense thriller shows the ugly side of class action lawsuits. A manic-depressive episode, secret meetings and documents, and wiretapping, snowball into murder as Clayton tries to help his firm recover their head attorney. In the case, a huge agricultural corporation is accused of creating a carcinogenic weed-killing chemical. Tempted with a monetary cut from the whole situation, Clayton decides that the case is worthwhile. He even has to fake his own death in order to secure the evidence and confront the agricultural company’s general counsel with it. It’s a twisting, turning film, with an ultimately uplifting end, and another changed outlook in Clayton’s self-sacrificial decision to bring down the corporation.
5. Class Action
In Class Action, courtroom drama combines with family drama to create an even higher stakes story. Gene Hackman’s character, Jedediah Tucker Ward, the classic good guy, brings a class action lawsuit against a car manufacturer, whose vehicles have a defect that causes injuries and deaths. The case is complicated when the attorney representing the car manufacturer turns out to be his daughter, Maggie. She’s in what would usually be considered the “bad guy” role, but in this case, she’s the lead: complex and sympathetic; an ambitious attorney who still has principles. As the case unfolds, the father and daughter face off personally and in the court of law. Interestingly, the car at the center of the case is similar to a real car, the Ford Pinto, now infamous because the cost of fixing the defect was more expensive than dealing with the human costs of leaving it as-is.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Supreme Court Justice, cultural icon. She’s called the “Notorious RBG” but where does it come from? This documentary answers that question. Ginsburg started her legal education and career in a world dominated by men. Throughout the 1970s, she was a trailblazing litigator in the world of discrimination law. She brought six gender discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, and won five. From 1980-1993, she served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, until she was appointed to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice, only the second woman ever to do so. These staggering achievements only scratch the surface of Ginsburg’s rich life. She’s also a professor, wife, mother, cancer survivor, and much more. This doc is an inspiring deep dive into the history of one of the most influential lawyers of this century.
7. The Rainmaker
What would a top ten list of legal films be if it didn’t have at least one adaptation from a John Grisham novel? The Rainmaker also boasts an acclaimed director, Francis Ford Coppola, and an incredible cast, including Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Mickey Rourke, and Claire Danes. This classic tale follows a recent grad from law school who works for a high-powered attorney who’s known for being an “ambulance chaser” – a lawyer who looks for injured people at accidents or in hospitals and offers to represent them. But Rudy Baylor (Damon) finds a real worthwhile client: a man with fatal leukemia, whose insurance wouldn’t cover a bone marrow transplant that could have saved him. Baylor is outgunned in the courtroom by the insurance company’s impressive legal team, but he perseveres, and wins the case, with the help of Deck Shifflet (DeVito). Their chemistry throughout makes this an enjoyable, triumphant example of the underdog tale.
8. Hot Coffee
You’ve heard the story before: A woman sued McDonald’s after she spilled coffee in her lap and was badly burned. While that sounds silly, many torts are simplified that way. This doc delves into the complicated and brutal world of pursuing justice as an individual against a large and organized enemy. Hot Coffee discusses two other cases: Gourley v. Nebraska Methodist Medical System Inc., and Jones v. Halliburton Co. The Gourley’s case concerned medical malpractice during Lisa Gourley’s pregnancy with twins. One of the twins was born with brain damage and cerebral palsy, due to undiagnosed bradycardia. In Jones’s case, she fought for arbitration as a victim of assault and battery while working for KBR, a Halliburton company. Not only is it difficult to bring a case; but it’s also difficult to be a juror on one of these cases, when the media and corporations can influence how a case or a plaintiff is viewed.
9. The Verdict
Another film centered around medical malpractice is The Verdict: a suspenseful, almost film noir take on the courtroom drama. If you’re looking for a film with a powerful message and just as powerful an execution of filmmaking, this is the one. It was written by David Mamet, and directed by Sydney Lumet, two Hollywood masters of the time. The case revolves around a woman improperly given an anesthetic during childbirth, who chokes and falls into a coma. The lawyer for the case, alcoholic Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), pursues the lawsuit with determination. He turns down a generous settlement from the hospital responsible, and continues to argue the case, even as everything seems to go wrong. In the end, the jury not only finds the case in his favor, but also requests to award the comatose woman’s family even more than they requested. Galvin also finds personal freedom from his addiction through the fulfillment of making a difference in the lives of the woman’s family.
10. The Lincoln Lawyer
Based on a book by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer follows Mickey Haller (Matthew McConaughey), who works out of a town car rather than an office. He’s a slick, sleazy defense lawyer who knows that he defends guilty people, but it makes him money. And while he’s missing some principles, he cares for and wants to provide for his young daughter and ex-wife. He takes on a case defending a rich philanderer, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe) who’s accused of assaulting a sex worker. Soon he realizes that this case relates to another case he had years ago, when a woman was murdered. The man he represented for that (played by Michael Peña) pleaded guilty at his recommendation. While he continues to represent Roulet, he also tries to rectify his earlier mistake. Roulet threatens his daughter and wife, but in the end, his longtime biker gang clients defend him, and evidence is found that convicts Roulet of the earlier murder. Unlike many of the clear-cut dramas on this list, this film straddles many genres: thriller, action, mystery, and delivers entertainment and a satisfying legal outcome.
Truth Over Power and Money
When you look at this list, all of these films share some thematic similarities. The little guy is sometimes a small town, a victim of violence or negligence, or someone who’s had an opportunity taken from them; sometimes it’s the lawyer him/herself.
And the big guy can be anything as well: a corporation, a utility, an insurance company, or the legal system. But ultimately, Hollywood knows what we want to see – victories for innocence and truth over power and money.
We hope you enjoyed this list, and if there are any of these you haven’t seen, check them out! Do you have any favorite legal films? We’d love to hear about them.