Most lawyers might not want to settle in to watch a movie or TV show about lawyers in their time off, but if they do, they might learn something valuable.
Yes, most fictional lawyers aren’t completely realistic, but you can often learn something from their personalities, their confidence (or initial lack of it), their fears and concerns, and the challenges that end up making them effective lawyers. From intuition to figuring out a solid work-life balance, these enduring fictional attorneys aren’t just excellent lawyers in the end, but balanced, hard-working attorneys who are oh-so-human.
Vincent LaGuardia Gambini from My Cousin Vinny
At first glance, Joe Pesci’s title character from My Cousin Vinny might not be who you would want representing you in a court of law, much less in a high-stakes murder case. Dressed in a leather jacket and sporting a thick New York accent, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini is a classic fish out of water in a small Alabama town where he has to defend his younger cousin (The Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio) against a murder charge, and initially, he seems like the absolute worst person for the job — but in the end, he triumphs. How? Well, it’s not just his ability to study the law, though he does cram for it quite well. Just as we did in law school and have continued to do in legal practice, Vinny pays attention to detail. This, on top of his confident presentation and straight-talking, humorous personality, make him effective in and outside of the courtroom. His sharp attention to detail also becomes quickly apparent, from his cousin’s story about Vinny poking holes in a magician’s act to Vinny’s tire-track-related discovery that cracks the entire case wide open.
In addition, Vinny is a confident man, and while his legal expertise sometimes lags behind this confidence, it allows him to capture the spotlight in any given room. His self-esteem gives him the boost he needs even when he might be flailing professionally. Most of all, even to the residents of this small town, Vinny is approachable and even relatable, despite his strong accent — his open and often blunt way of speaking is appealing and accessible, and thanks to that, he doesn’t cover up the facts with too much legalese or hard-to-understand terms. He has the ability to take a complicated fact or situation, figure it out, and present it to others, especially the jury, easily and effortlessly.
One other trait that ultimately leads him to be successful is his ability to be open-minded and resourceful. When the judge researches him and finds a match with a deceased attorney, Vinny thinks on his feet and successfully explains away the discrepancy. We don’t recommend lying on your resume, of course, but his quick thinking and resourcefulness is still impressive. Finally, he’s initially reluctant to enlist the help of his girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito, but ultimately not only is welcoming of her help but gets her on the stand to testify as a car expert, which ends up exonerating the defendants. While we think smoothing out his edges would be a good next step, Vinny’s attention to detail, confidence, avoidance of legalese, and resourcefulness are traits we admire.
Elle Woods from Legally Blonde
Another unlikely candidate for the legal profession, Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) starts off as a sorority president whose only wish is to be the future Mrs. Warner Huntington III, but her plan is quickly derailed when her Harvard 1L boyfriend dumps her for not being “serious” enough. Not to be deterred, Elle aces the LSAT (with a ridiculously impressive score of 179 that we all can appreciate), hires a Coppola to direct her admissions video, and gets herself into Harvard. She combines her intelligence with sheer force of will to prove herself as even more capable than her ex, successfully acquitting a fellow sorority sister alum of murder.
What makes Elle so successful despite her bubbly, blonde, and very pink exterior? Her intuition is excellent, from seeing the inconsistencies that allow her to crack the murder case to being wary about a character named Callahan (who ultimately, and inappropriately, makes a pass at her), and when Elle follows her gut, she’s pretty much always right. The film also doesn’t shy away from showing just how tough law school can be, and from her intense LSAT studying sessions to montages where Elle pores over piles of textbooks for her next class, it’s clear that Elle has an intense drive to succeed and truly cares about what she does, giving her a serious edge. Above all, her unfailing authenticity is what serves her the most. Elle never changes who she essentially is, she doesn’t get caught up in her fellow students’ pettiness, and she focuses on the task at hand.
As an outgrowth of her being herself, she’s also not afraid to ask questions and look at things from a new perspective. While others may laugh at her questions, she’s using her natural curiosity to get to the bottom of things, which makes her a lawyer we’d want in our corner. And as a bonus, thanks to Elle Woods, every woman realized that she could be a brilliant, effective attorney, and at the same time have perfect hair, the right lipstick, and be clad in head-to-toe pink (as long as it’s not low-viscosity rayon).
Miranda Hobbes from Sex and the City
Though HBO’s hit groundbreaking series Sex and the City always placed a focus on the lead foursome’s love lives rather than their careers, Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), the sharp, dry pragmatist of the group, is of course a lawyer, serving as an indispensable example of how an attorney can balance life, love, and a demanding career. Throughout the series, Miranda’s career is often in the background, but we can tell she’s figuring out how to be a single woman in New York while climbing the law firm ladder, dating (often unsuccessfully) other lawyers and also becoming a parent.
When she strikes up a romantic relationship with a bartender, Steve, she has to learn to manage two completely opposing schedules while forcing herself to let loose. Throughout their relationship, she learns the value of Steve’s job even as she spends hours working on cases and making sure she’s on top of everything. She’s also often on hand to help her friends with their legal questions while being careful not to overstep, from looking at Charlotte’s prenuptial agreement to looking at Carrie’s lease and offering advice. However, the best lesson Miranda teaches us is the importance of work-life balance, and there’s no better example than when she becomes a single working mother.
We admire her ability to balance her friends, her family, and her work—not perfectly, but in a way that often reveals the many challenges lawyers face and the trade-offs they’re constantly making.
These lawyers aren’t real, but the traits they exhibit are, and their successes as fictional attorneys reflect certain lessons you can apply to your own legal life.