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Top 10 Legal Lessons from the Movies

May 16, 2014 Legal Team

10 Real-Life Lessons on the Law as Taught by Movies

10) “Erin Brockovich”: Released in 2000, Julia Roberts plays the titular role. Berkovitch serves as a law clerk to a personal injury attorney, who, after some initial investigation, spurs one of the largest class actions in history. The lessons we can learn from this movie? The definition of a class-action lawsuit. In the film, the personal injury case has a total of 634 plaintiffs. A class action is simply defined as a group of plaintiffs who have common claims against a defendant. While not all class actions tend to reach into the numbers that the movie depicts, they are multi-plaintiff cases. And the price tag for Brokovitch wasn’t so bad either.

9) “The Firm”: Tom Cruise plays a Harvard Law grad, Mitch McDeere, in this 1993 film. He is offered the associate position of a lifetime at a shady not-so-ethical firm. When two associates of the firm are found murdered, McDeere is torn between helping the FBI solve the murder and preserving his law license—and possibly his life. McDeere is hesitant to violate the firm’s attorney-client privilege to aid the investigation. The attorney-client privilege protects communications between the two from being admissible as evidence. Therefore, a client can express all relevant information to counsel within a “zone of privacy.” Don’t you worry, Tom Cruise’s character is okay at the end of it all?

8) “Adam’s Rib”: Katharine Hepburn stars in “Adam’s Rib” (1949) as one half of a married attorney couple who find themselves on opposite sides of a case. While a battle of the sexes ensues, the real-life legal theory idea of spousal privilege is introduced. Much like attorney-client privilege, the information divulged between two married people during a case is considered confidential communication that is protected from testimonial disclosure. If only all cases were as fun as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer make it look in this quintessential romantic comedy.

7) “North Country”: Josey Aimes, a down on her luck, abused woman, returns to her hometown in northern Minnesota. Portrayed by actress Charlize Theron, Josey ends up working in the town mine, where she is constantly sexually harassed and “slut-shamed” for having her son out of wedlock. Josey tries to report the harassment to the mine’s Board of Directors but instead finds herself in the fight of her life. From this 2005 film, we learn that sexual harassment in the workplace is an actionable offense, and the employee has a right to pursue a suit against the employer for harassment, especially if management, in this case, the mine’s Board of Directors, ignores it. With drama that justifies a “slow-clap” ending, North Country teaches us a little about labor law.

6) “Philadelphia”: In this revealing 1993 film about HIV/AIDS and homophobia, Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an associate at a corporate law firm who is fired because he contracts the disease. In the trial that ensues, Beckett and his attorney, played by Denzel Washington, allege disability discrimination, and the jury eventually awards a favorable verdict. In the state of California, disability discrimination is prohibited by the Fair Employment and Housing Act under the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Employers must engage in an interactive process with the employee to accommodate a person’s disability in order to facilitate his or her continued success with the company, if possible. Hanks won the Oscar for his role as Beckett.

5) “Double Jeopardy”: In this 1999 Tommy Lee Jones film, Jones plays a parole offer named Travis Lehman who is charged with supervising an accused, yet innocent, murderess when she is released from jail on parole. The murderess, Libby Parsons (played by Ashely Judd) seeks to kill the victim (who wasn’t really dead) that she was framed for killing six years prior. She cannot be tried twice for the same crime under the Double Jeopardy Clause in the 5th Amendment. The clause, in all actuality, prevents a person from being tried twice for the same crime if that person was acquitted or convicted previously. For Judd’s character, it was a convenient loophole.

4) “Rain Maker”: We learn a cardinal rule of law in this 1997 movie starring Matt Damon. Never sue anyone who doesn’t have money or is about to file for bankruptcy. Damon’s character, Rudy Baylor manages to render a favorable verdict for his client in an insurance bad faith case that is worth millions. However, the company then files for bankruptcy which leaves Rudy with nothing to recover. So, lesson learned: do your homework before you sue.

3) “Runaway Jury”: While this 2003 film has more to do with jury fixing than most anything else, it’s also a peek into civil action versus criminal action. In the movie, a widow of a workplace shooting victim sues the employer for gross negligence in civil court. Civil lawsuits deal with disputes between individuals and entities that can be redressed by compensation. Criminal cases deal with the punishment of those who committed egregious acts like murder, burglary, assault/battery, etc. Criminal charges are brought forth by the government. So, if the worker’s widow had filed a police report and the government had tried the shooter for murder, it would have been a criminal case. Since she filed a lawsuit seeking monetary damages and reconciliation, it is a civil action.

2)  “Laws of Attraction”: Two divorce attorneys representing two sides of a case, accidentally get married during an unexpected night on the town. Julianne Moore plays Audrey Woods and Pierce Brosnan plays Daniel Rafferty in the 2004 comedy. Soon after they get married, Daniel finds sensitive material about Audrey’s client and uses it in court the next morning. You would think this was a conflict of interest. You might be right. According to the ABA a conflict of interest exists if “the representation of one client will be directly adverse to another client; or there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.” So I would say marrying opposing counsel during an open case might constitute as a “risk…limited by a personal interest of the lawyer.” No judgment.

1) “Legally Blonde”: Who can forget the beloved and adorable Elle Woods as played by the equally charming Reese Witherspoon? The 2001 flick centers around Elle’s entrance into Harvard University Law School and her experiences as a law student. Though she initially attends to chase a man, she ends up being one of the most successful graduates from her class. During her first day at Harvard, one of Elle’s professors quotes Aristotle, whose famous line can now be recited by sorority girls everywhere. “The law is reason free from passion.” Fair point, Aristotle. Lawyers can only operate as so far as the law allows. But hey, the law is always changing, improving, and shaping the way things work.