10 Must-See Movies for Law School Students

Sep 1st, 2009

Your parents may not think that as a law student or LSAT student you have a lot of extra time for lying around and watching movies, but some films can actually help you prepare for law school and your legal career after graduation. These films, for example, serve to inspire, motivate, challenge and expose students to all sides of law, including corruption schemes, corporate law, humanitarian and war crimes cases, international law, law school stories, and more. Keep reading for our list of the 10 must-see movies for law school students.

  1. The Paper Chase: The 1973 film The Paper Chase, based on the 1970 book by the same name, is an iconic law school film about Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard. Hart struggles to please his militant contracts professor, whom he is frightened of but also has great respect. At the same time, Hart falls in love with his professor’s daughter, though he doesn’t realize the relation at the time. Law students love The Paper Chase for its portrayal of professor worship, obsession and the intense studying first years have to suffer through.
  2. Amistad: Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film starring Anthony Hopkins in an Academy Award nominated role, Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey, Djimon Hounsou, Stellan Skarsgard and Nigel Hawthorne is a thrilling story about the birth of the United States legal tradition. McConaughey stars as a young American property lawyer who is enlisted to defend a group of West African slaves who violently took over their trading ship in 1839. The film, which is based on a true story, follows the case as it reaches the Supreme Court and even the court of Spain. Anthony Hopkins plays an aging John Quincy Adams who dispenses legal and moral advice while tending to his African violets. Law school students will feel inspired by the rousing courtroom scenes especially.
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird: Gregory Peck stars in To Kill a Mockingbird, the story of a Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in what is widely regarded as one of the best films in American movie history. The 1962 film stars Peck as literary icon Atticus Finch, father of 6-year-old Scout and her brother Jem, who are also victims of the town’s violent split over the controversial case. To Kill a Mockingbird is an important film because of its portrayal of how racism often triumphed over the law during the 1950s and 1960s, and how certain cases can impact society even outside of the courtroom.
  4. Philadelphia: Tom Hanks won an Academy Award for his role as Andrew Beckett, an attorney who brings a suit against his corporate law firm for dismissing him after they discovered that he was a homosexual with AIDS. Philadelphia was released in 1993, when homosexuality was just beginning to become an issue in labor law and discrimination cases. Denzel Washington, Joanne Woodward, Antonio Banderas, and Chandra Wilson also star.
  5. Michael Clayton: The 2007 film Michael Clayton directed by Tony Gilroy and starring George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack examines a corruption scheme at a large, corporate law firm in New York City. One of the clients that Clooney’s firm represents is involved in a toxic chemical cover-up. The character Arthur Edens, played by Tom Wilkinson, is a lawyer and friend of Clooney’s who defends the company but is secretly thinking about building a case against it after he finds out about the cover-up. Tilda Swinton plays the company’s chief counsel who sets up her own twisted investigation to kill Edens’ case. It’s a film that depicts modern American corporate law culture while addressing a realistic set of social and environmental issues.
  6. Inherit the Wind: This classic film from 1960 which addresses two significant milestones in American legal and social history. On the surface, the film, which was adapted from the play version, recreates the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial during which a Tennessee school teacher is accused of breaking a law that prevents the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the film was released right after the controversial and destructive McCarthy trials of the 1940s and 1950s and may have been intended to comment on the unfairness of those events.
  7. 12 Angry Men: This 1957 film starring Henry Fonda and directed by Sidney Lumet is another movie that examines how prejudice sways a jury. The movie follows the jury’s inability to reach a verdict for a teen’s murder trial as jury members’ outward arguments and inward responses to the circumstances change. Law students will learn about the importance and influence of perception, bigotry, and compelling arguments during a jury trial.
  8. Judgment at Nuremberg: Law school students interested in public policy, international law and humanitarian law should watch the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremburg starring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgovery Clift and William Shatner. Directed by Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremburg follows a fictional story but is based on the historical Nuremburg trials that followed World War II and accused Nazi officers of war crimes. This film also makes reference to the real-life Katzenberger Trial during World War II that sentenced to death a Jewish man for having an affair with a white European woman.
  9. The Pelican Brief: Julia Roberts plays a Tulane law school student named Darby Shaw who takes it upon herself to write up a law brief about two Supreme Court justice assassinations that have just occurred. After showing the brief to her law school professor boyfriend, who then passes it to a friend at the FBI, Shaw’s boyfriend is murdered in a car bomb that was intended for both of them. For the rest of the film, Shaw, along with a journalist played by Denzel Washington, tries to escape the hit men who are after her brief while also trying to solve the murders. It’s an inspirational story for young law school students who are impatient to make a difference.
  10. The Firm: Sydney Pollack directed and Tom Cruise starred in the 1993 film adaptation of John Grisham’s novel, The Firm. Law school students and recent graduates of law school may be able to relate to Cruise’s wish to be on the inside of a small but well-respected law firm in Memphis even after receiving offers from firms in New York and Chicago. Cruise plays a young attorney who is courted by the top lawyers at the firm only to find himself in the middle of a corrupt circle involving many of the attorneys and the mob. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Ed Harris and Paul Sorvino all co-star.
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