Lessons for Every Lawyer from My Cousin Vinny
In honor of Bill Belichick’s reference to My Cousin Vinny in his notable press conference today about deflated balls, I’m re-posting my article on what the movie teaches us about the law. My Cousin Vinny is also listed as one of our top 10 legal films for writers in my nonfiction book, co-authored with Colleen Collins, A Lawyer’s Primer for Writers: From Crimes to Courtrooms.
We’re Not Talking Courtroom Etiquette
The film My Cousin Vinny, released in 1992, starred Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei and Fred Gwynne. It’s a humorous courtroom drama about rough-around-the-edges New York lawyer Vincent LaGuardia “Vinny” Gambini (played by Pesci), fresh out of law school, who’s asked by his nephew and his nephew’s friend to save them from wrongful murder charges in a “redneck” Alabama court system.
Vinny, whose law license is still wet with ink, gives one of the pithiest, funniest opening statements I’ve ever heard, in real life or fiction:
“Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you.”
Okay, so Vinny isn’t exactly a shining example of courtroom etiquette, but the movie has been praised by lawyers, this one included, for adhering to the realities of courtroom procedure and trial strategy.
Realistic Courtroom Confrontations
US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited My Cousin Vinny as an example of the principle that a client can choose his own lawyer. When the American Bar Association (ABA) journal invited lawyers to vote for their favorite fictional lawyers, Vinny Gambini ranked number twelve, with lawyers admiring Vinny’s technically correct courtroom confrontations.
Let’s look at one of those, starting with an expert witness introducing his qualifications:
Witness: I am a special automotive instructor of forensic studies for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Vinny: How long have you been in this position?
Witness: 18 years.
Vinny: Your honor, may we approach the bench please?
Judge: If you wish.
Vinny: I object to this witness being called at this time. We’ve been given no prior notice he’d testify, no discovery of any tests he’s conducted or reports he’s prepared, and as the court is aware, the defense is entitled to advance notice of any witness who will testify, particularly those who will give scientific evidence, so that we could properly prepare for cross-examination, as well as giving the defense the opportunity to have the witness’s reports reviewed by a defense expert, who might then be in a position to contradict the veracity of his conclusions.
Judge: Mr. Gambini, that is a lucid, intelligent, well-thought-out objection.
Vinny: Thank you, your honor.
There’s more to learn by watching this movie: Gambini’s interviews of clients, preparation of case theory, and his cross-examinations that reveal witnesses’ vulnerabilities.
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