The Impact of Movies on Legal Education

The practice of law belongs to the confines of either the courtroom or a law office.

Attorneys and judges practice law all the time, while aspiring lawyers get their feet wet in law school. But for the general public, law and everything about it gets immortalized in pop culture. Movies, novels, and television are the principal dispensers of law to the layman.

Pop Culture Influence

Regular people get their “law education” by reading a book or watching movies and TV shows about lawyers, cases, and judges. A majority of the material out there is well-researched and accurate enough. But some often depict the ethics and professionalism of attorneys and judges wrong.

Popular culture has a tendency to add “art” to the equation because that’s its job. A movie isn’t called “performing arts” for nothing, and actors do their very best to represent the craft the way the script portrays it to be. In the movies, a background check may involve a grizzled private investigator on the case. In real life, these checks are quickly done online.

However, there’s somewhat of a disconnect between what happens in the movie courtroom and what happens in real life. Ask any judge or lawyer about it, and you’ll get a unanimous answer that it most certainly doesn’t happen that way. Wrong character-building leads to stereotyping, and lawyers are often portrayed as either inept or sleazy.

Legal Education and Movies


Movies about the law have a profound impact on legal education.

There are plenty of great legal dramas that law professors use to help educate their students. Some of the most famous legal movies law professors use are To Kill a Mockingbird, Philadelphia, and 12 Angry Men.

But why do legal educators turn to movies when they have all the experience and answers? The answer is simple: movies elicit a better response that’s aided by production value. By using films, law teachers can spark more engaging discussions among the students.

Law professors can use movies in different ways:

  • Use videos to point out strategies used by the defense or the prosecution.
  • Highlight best practices and the cross-examination of witnesses, the defendant, etc.
  • Movies let students nit-pick the more excellent techniques in direct and re-direct.
  • Movies can provide insight into the jurors’ preconceived notions about the case.

Movies about the law give professors a powerful teaching tool that can help students better grasp the basics of the practice.

Three Films That Have a Big Effect on Legal Education

Among the plethora of legal drama films, there are three that affect legal education in a big way. These movies are the Lincoln Lawyer, The Shawshank Redemption and Law Abiding Citizen.

The Lincoln Lawyer


This film is about a lawyer who didn’t exhaust all efforts to help a client convicted of murder. The lawyer advised his client to plead guilty to escape the death penalty, despite repeated claims by his client that he’s innocent. Upon taking another case, the lawyer finds similarities in the murder that convince him of his former client’s innocence.

The Shawshank Redemption

The movie explores the corruption and abuse people suffer while in prison. It also touches on the legalities of the decisions made by prison officials. In one scene, a young inmate named Tom knew about evidence that could exonerate Andy (the main character), but it fell on deaf ears when Andy told the warden.

The premise was that Andy was always innocent of the crime that sent him to jail. If this happened today, it would be easy to run a criminal history check and look for priors to help with building a case.

Law Abiding Citizen


This film tackles the fact of ego and putting one’s sterling record first before justice. The story revolves around Clyde, whose family was murdered in front of him, and prosecutor Rice, who handled the case. The murderer was able to walk after Rice asked him to strike a deal and implicate his accomplice, who had nothing to do with the murder.

These movies provide talking points for students to have discussions about ethics and professionalism within the practice. The takeaway here is that film when done well, have an enormous impact on how educators teach law students.