Some of Hollywood’s most entertaining stories are also the most misleading. We are not talking about fairytales. Stretching the truth for dramatic purposes is especially common where the law is concerned. From Law and Order and A Few Good Men to Legally Blonde, there is no shortage of on-screen attorneys to watch. While many of these shows are highly entertaining, the reality is that most legal dramas significantly misrepresent the legal profession.
This blog will explore legal scenarios from a few of our favorite movies and tell you what would happen if they took place in real life. For the benefit of those of you who have not recently watched, there are quick refreshers (with spoilers) to follow. Grab your popcorn.
Disclaimer: We are big fans of Legally Blonde, and our critiques of this film can apply to many legal dramas, so this is in no way a condemnation. (Go, Elle!)
First things first, no matter how much we love Elle Woods, a first-year law student cannot defend you in a murder trial – nor should you let one. First-year law students usually have a restriction on the number of hours they are permitted to work, so it is rare for them to have an internship like the one Elle does.
Another common misconception from films is that there is almost never a stand-up-and-reveal-the-real-guilty-party moment in the courtroom (A.K.A. “breaking the witness”). Dramatic movies make it seem as if witnesses break down on cross-examination all the time, but the reality is just the opposite.
Lawyers learn all of this during discovery, not at trial. If Elle’s line of questioning was to take place in a real-life courtroom, the prosecutor would have likely objected to Elle’s line of questioning, citing relevancy, compound questions, and testifying to facts not yet entered into evidence.
This movie is another gem! However, if you are looking for solid legal advice after having separated from your partner, Mrs. Doubtfire is not a good source. If you take away nothing else from this blog, we urge you not to disregard child custody rulings.
In real life, the actions of Williams’ character would not be tolerated in a family law court, no matter how honest his intentions are. From a criminal perspective, there are a number of crimes Williams’ character could conceivably be charged with for acting as Mrs. Doubtfire, from fraud and forgery to interference with child custody and foregoing a court order regarding custody.
If you or a loved one is involved in a child custody dispute, it is critical that you speak to an experienced family law attorney.
Where the Heart Is
In Where The Heart Is, a pregnant seventeen-year-old (Natalie Portman) rebuilds her life after being abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart in Oklahoma. With nowhere to stay, Portman’s character moves into the store. She sleeps in a tent in the camping section and takes food and other necessities off the shelves, carefully recording everything she uses so she can pay the store back. Portman delivers a baby girl whom she names Americus and becomes a minor celebrity after the news gets out that she gave birth in Walmart.
While there have been similar reports regarding people in Walmart, we cannot recommend taking any of this movie as inspiration in real life. For starters, it is frowned upon to give birth in public – and it comes with a number of health risks.
Other obvious consequences include criminal trespassing charges. If you entered the building after hours without permission with the intent to steal, you could be convicted of burglary. Depending on the state and details of your case, you could face a fine or jail time.
Liar, Liar stars Jim Carrey as a lawyer who built his entire career on lying but finds himself cursed to speak only the truth for a single day. During his day of honesty, he desperately tries to avoid a trial, even seeking a continuance from the judge. A continuance is something the court may grant to delay proceedings until a later date. It is perfectly reasonable for parties in a suit or the judge to request a continuance granted in order to prepare for proceedings. However, in the film, when asked what is impeding Carrey’s ability to proceed, he responds, “I can’t lie.”
Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for justice. He should not be lying in order to do his job. His continuance is denied.
Takeaway: Just because your attorney is on your side and willing to go to bat for you in court does not mean he or she is willing to risk professional credibility by lying for you.
We would describe the accuracy of this film as non-existent. In Double Jeopardy, Ashley Judd plays Libby, a woman convicted of killing her husband, who later turns out to be alive. Judd (and the audience) are then told by another inmate that she cannot be convicted of killing him again because she has served time, so once she serves her sentence, she is free to murder him in broad daylight.
Just to be clear: No. Double jeopardy cannot be used as a loophole for murder.
No matter how slimy Bruce Greenwood’s character is, if our heroine kills him, she can still be prosecuted.
The legal concept of double jeopardy (The Double Jeopardy Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution) exists to prevent a criminal defendant from being tried more than once by the same sovereign for the same offense. While both of Judd’s charged crimes would be for the murder of the same man, they are two separate incidents. The dates, facts and evidence supporting each would be completely different. Therefore, The charges are not for the same offense. Furthermore, the first (framed) murder occurred in Washington state, and the second occurred in Louisiana. The two states are not the same sovereign; double jeopardy would not bar the second prosecution.
Kramer vs. Kramer
Kramer vs. Kramer tells the story of a workaholic father (Dustin Hoffman) whose wife (Meryl Streep) leaves him and their six-year-old son. The father and son develop a close relationship, only for the mother to return over a year later, demanding custody.
This film challenged the long-held notion that mothers should automatically be awarded full custody of their children, marking the beginning of a new standard: that the court places the child’s best interest over the presumption that mothers are automatically deserving of custody.
While the film is “realistic,” the outcome of the trial would be considered quite unreal today. After living with his father for almost 18 months and having no contact whatsoever with his mother during this time, the child is ordered to live with his mother, and the time he gets to spend with his father is radically stripped back. Absent any other factors, in Florida, the Court would likely ease into timesharing between the mother and child, such as a step-up parenting plan to allow for the child to adjust to the dual households again.
Now, true crime lovers and legal eagles, do not fear. There are depictions of legal situations on screen that are decent. And they may surprise you! Our picks include:
Sweet Home Alabama
Reese Witherspoon’s husband back home is legally entitled to the money and marital assets acquired during marriage according to state law. Additionally, with polygamy illegal nationwide, you can not marry McDreamy until your divorce goes through.
If you find yourself in a similar situation and need representation, we know a great team!
My Cousin Vinny
This movie is not only iconic, it includes a fantastic expert-qualification riff between characters, as well as an accurate representation of the discovery procedure. It has even been used by law school trial practice professors to illustrate impeaching a witness and laying the foundation for an expert witness.
The Rest of the Best
Here is a quick list of other movies we think depict lawyer life in a fair light:
- Erin Brockovich
- Just Mercy
- A Civil Action
- Scent of a Woman
- Marriage Story
As attorneys and lovers of law, we enjoy all media that informs people about the law and the outs of legal processes – even if they are not always 100% accurate. Movies like Legally Blonde have an especially close place in our hearts, having the power to inspire more women to pursue a career in law, just like its protagonist! In a 2018 interview on The Today Show, Reese Witherspoon said, “I’ve had more young women come up to me and say, ‘I went to law school because of Elle Woods.’ It is incredible to see how long movies can last and how important they can be to young people, generation after generation.”
Have you found yourself in any of the real-life scenarios these movies explored? If you are in need of legal advice, our real-world attorneys can help. For a consultation to discuss your matter, please call 813-498-2757 or email info@McCartTesmer.com.