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My Cousin Vinny and the Future of Legal Education

Posted By Alberto Bernabe [1], Monday, May 16, 2016
Updated: Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Next year will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of the film the ABA Journal named the third best legal film of all time. I am not sure that I agree with that designation, but the fact it was so named tells you how highly regarded the movie is by the members of the legal profession.  This is a bit unusual for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact the movie is a comedy.  The movie, as you might have guessed from the title of this column, is My Cousin Vinny.  Although it was released so long ago, there is no question it continues to resonate with lawyers. So why has Vinny endured? 


“Hollywood,” or more accurately the American movie industry, has always been fascinated by the law.  Many famous “classic” movies are related to legal themes and every year new law related movies are released.  (My favorite from last year was Bridge of Spies.)  Whether it is because of an interest in historical events, crime and punishment, tales of justice for the wronged, or stories of redemption, legal themes have always been part of the movies.


I often talk about movies with my students and when they ask me for recommendations I give them a list I have prepared over the years in which I have organized the titles under certain main “themes.” [2]  No one is surprised to see My Cousin Vinny on the list, but some are surprised I have listed it under the theme of “legal education.”


The film stars Joe Pesci as Vincent Gambini, a newly admitted New York lawyer who agrees to represent a family member and his friend facing the death penalty for a murder they did not commit in Alabama.  Having failed the bar exam a few times, it would be Gambini’s first trial, of any kind, ever. 


There are, as usual, a number of inaccuracies about the practice of law in the movie and to enjoy the film, one has to ignore those details.  But, as many of the reviews of the movie written by lawyers have argued, unlike in other movies where the action is fictionalized to create a compelling drama, My Cousin Vinny uses humor to illustrate a lot of truth: the reality of limited budgets, limited preparation, impatient judges, hostile expert witnesses, ruined dress suits, hopelessly mangled questions, completely fruitless arguments, and stress.  Everything that happens in the trial in Vinny could happen and sometimes does happen in real life.


This is one reason I place My Cousin Vinny under the theme of legal education.  It provides so much material you can use in the classroom.  For example, you can use the movie to discuss criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, the role of the judge in a trial, efficient cross-examination, the role of expert witnesses, and effective trial advocacy.


But the reference to legal education goes deeper.  I think you can use the movie to discuss the most common topic of debate within legal education itself: how to make sure that after only three years in law school, graduates are “practice ready.”  Interestingly, however, in My Cousin Vinny, the issue is turned on its head.


After Vinny’s girlfriend Mona Lisa bails him out for a second time after having been found in contempt, she criticizes his performance in court and tells him it is pretty clear he does not know what he is doing.  She then utters one of my favorite lines in the movie: “Don’t they teach you that in law school?”  Vinny’s response is just as classic: “NO!  They teach you Contracts . . . !”  Obviously, the implication is that in law school they teach “law” not “how to practice law.”


There are many ironic twists to this short exchange.  First, as to those “things” that his girlfriend was referring to, we do teach you that in law school!  Vinny may not have learned them—or may have forgotten them—but we do teach them!  But Vinny is right that there are many things you need to know to practice law effectively that we do not teach in law school.


Which brings me to the reason I say the movie turns the issue on its head.  Vinny is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t.


Although Vinny is certainly no role model when it comes to knowledge of the law, legal analysis, and ethical behavior, law students could learn from him how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice.  Vinny needs to learn legal analysis, that which law schools are best equipped to teach, while many of today’s graduates need to learn how to develop Vinny’s inherent ability to interview clients, to gather facts, to prepare a theory of a case, to negotiate, to know when to ask a question and when to remain quiet, to cross examine a witness forcefully—but with charm—in order to expose the weaknesses in their testimony, to pick your battles, and to know how to make an effective opening statement.


To be successful, like Vinny, all law graduates need to develop both their analytical knowledge and their practical skills.  And, also like Vinny, they often need to learn to accept the fact that they need help. Like Vinny, they cannot do it all alone.  Were it not for his girlfriend, Vinny’s attempt to practice law would have ended in a disaster and, possibly, in disbarment.   We can all learn from that lesson too.


Thus, in the end, what My Cousin Vinny teaches us about legal education is that law schools can and should complement the focus on legal analysis with an introduction to practice skills, but also that to expect law schools to make all students ready to practice law by themselves right after graduation after only three years of studies is a bit naive.  As stressed in the final report of an ABA Task Force on legal education back in 1992 (the year Vinny was released), both the academic institutions and the practicing bar need to understand that they have complementary duties toward the development of skills in new graduates.


Alberto Bernabe is a Professor of Law at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois, where he teaches Professional Responsibility and Torts.


[1] Professor of Law, The John Marshall Law School

[2] You can see the list here:  https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_e2ysf5cfS6RGZoU2J3T1BrbnM/edit


Tags:  legal  legal professional  paralegal 

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