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Our Cousin Vinny

Move over, Atticus: Lawyers have a new favorite cinematic lawyer

Published in 2016 New York Metro Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2016

The conversation about great lawyers on film used to begin and end with Atticus Finch—with maybe Lt. Daniel Kaffee, Sir Wilfred Robarts or young Abe Lincoln tossed in for good measure. 

No more. 

During the last year, Super Lawyers asked attorneys from across the country to name their favorite legal movie, and To Kill a Mockingbird, with Gregory Peck as the thoughtful, pacifist Southern lawyer fighting racism in 1930s Alabama, didn’t come out on top; it didn’t even place.

The winner, by a landslide, was My Cousin Vinny. Here are the top choices from the 84 attorneys polled. 

  • My Cousin Vinny 19
  • A Few Good Men 9
  • A Time to Kill 5
  • Legally Blonde 4
  • To Kill a Mockingbird 4
  • 12 Angry Men 3
  • A Civil Action 3
  • Philadelphia 3

What accounts for Atticus’ fall from favor? Some might blame the recent, controversial publication of Go Set a Watchman, in which an older, less saintly Atticus rails against integration and the NAACP in 1950s Alabama. But half of the votes occurred before Harper Lee’s sequel was published in the summer of 2015; and most of Mockingbird’s picks came after that date.

More likely, Mockingbird was simply a victim of its own success. It was too obvious a choice. 

“The answer you’ve probably heard a million times is To Kill a Mockingbird,” says J. Guthrie True of Frankfort, Ky., before opting for Witness for the Prosecution

“Honestly, my favorite legal movies are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Verdict, but I figure there’s a 90 percent chance that others have written about them,” says Martha E. Gifford, of Brooklyn, N.Y., before recommending The Informant!

The lawyers who chose My Cousin Vinny, meanwhile, mention how light-hearted and funny it is. More than a few wish that they could repeat Vinny Gambini’s memorable opening statement: “Everything that guy just said is bullshit.” 

They also identify with him. 

“He doesn’t give up,” says David McGuffey, an elder law attorney in Georgia. “And at the end of the day he prevails, as much as anything, because of his tenacity.”

“The critics call it satire but I would call it reality,” says Bradford C. Berge of Santa Fe, N.M. “I’ve taken on cases that I shouldn’t have. I’ve represented my relatives. I’ve been in over my head with no way out. I’ve been ‘hometowned’ by opposing counsel who called the judge and jury by their first names. I have felt the wrath of judges who made no effort to hide their feelings that I was wasting their time.” 

“If you are enthusiastic and diligent and you really love being a lawyer,” adds Dean T. Kirby Jr. in San Diego, “that’s got to be about 90 percent of success. In a weird way, it’s an uplifting take on the profession.”

There’s also this: Atticus lost his case; Vinny won.

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