Preparing for law school doesn’t have to be purely academic; there’s plenty you can learn from film and TV if you look in the right places. We asked Martin Partington, author of Introduction to the English Legal System, for his top ten film recommendations for new law students and aspiring lawyers. Iconic cases, legendary lawyers, fact and fiction – which films would make it on to your list?
1. Twelve Angry Men (1957)
This US film is set in the jury room, where 12 jurors have to decide the outcome of a seemingly open and shut case. In the UK, no one knows precisely what goes on in the jury room. Direct participant research is prohibited by law. So dramas like this offer a version of what might happen. One question to ponder: how do you think the verdict might have differed if the jury had been told it could reach a majority verdict (possible in England and Wales) rather than a unanimous one?
2. The Paper Chase (1973)
Another US film features a first year law student’s experience of taking a class in contract under the supervision of the fearsome Professor Kingsfield. It shows how the much vaunted socratic method of legal education – where students are fiercely quizzed by their professors – works in practice. You may end up relieved that your course is demanding in different ways! The intellectual limitation of the film is the suggestion that all legal education is about textual analysis of cases and statutes. It takes no account of the social importance of law. For a different take on the law school experience, you could try Legally Blonde (2001).
3. In the Name of the Father (1993)
This is an Irish-British-American film based on the story of the Guildford Four, four people falsely convicted of the 1974 IRA‘s Guildford pub bombings, which killed four off-duty British soldiers and a civilian. The story is important as it formed part of the background to major changes in the criminal justice system of England and Wales, including the creation of the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service. Warning: its portrayal of the trial process is a travesty of reality – it should not be taken as any sort of representation of what happens in practice.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Based on Harper Lee’s classic novel, this tells the story of attorney Atticus Finch’s defence of a black man falsely accused of rape. The recent publication of Harper Lee’s follow up novel Go Set a Watchman brings a new dimension to the tale. How does the new book change your perception of Finch?
5. Erin Brockovich (2000)
A great ’cause lawyering’ film. A clerk in a small law office pursues an action against a huge corporation, suspected of widespread land pollution. It’s a pity no similar UK film was made about the Sunday Times classic investigation into the thalidomide drug.
6. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Post World War 2 trial of 4 Nazi judges, accused of using their position to support German state goals of cleansing the country of Jews. Worth seeing both for its own sake, but also as the back drop for the more recent creation of International Criminal Tribunals charged with the hearing of cases against those accused of war crimes.
7. Reversal of Fortune (1990)
Based on a true story it centres on the appeal by Law Professor Alan Dershowitz in the case of Claus von Bulow, a wealthy Dane found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife. An interesting film: not least because it shows the engagement of legal academics in real litigation – something which does not often occur in the UK.
8. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
A film about the trial for murder of Timothy Evans: one of a number of high profile miscarriage of justice cases that ultimately led to the abolition of the death penalty in the UK in 1965. Worth watching as a reminder of why the death penalty needs to remain abolished.
9. A Separation (2011)
Iranian film focusing on an Iranian middle-class couple who separate, and the conflicts that arise when the husband hires a lower-class care giver for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve included it here because it features some proceedings before courts in Iran, although it is hard to know how accurate the representation of the working of the Iranian court system truly is.
10. 10th District Court (10e Chambre – Instants d’Audience) (2004)
Documentary on the work of a Paris Criminal Court. Worth viewing to compare how the French criminal justice system operates to the work of Magistrates’ Courts in England and Wales.
Featured Image Credit: ‘Hammer, Books, Law’, Photo by succo, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay.