Everyone loves a good courtroom drama like Philadelphia, A Few Good Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird, films that are often considered the best of all time. Over the years, some of the biggest Hollywood stars have played lawyers in the movies (or TV shows) like those, and transform themselves into committed defense attorneys, hard-nosed prosecutors, and pretty much every other type of lawyer imaginable.
Here are 32 famous actors who played a lawyer in a drama, comedy, or somewhere in between…
Tom Hanks won his first Academy Award for Best Actor thanks to his emotional and pivotal performance in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 legal drama, Philadelphia. In the movie, he played Andrew Beckett, an attorney who sues his old firm that fired him after senior partners discovered he was gay and had AIDS. Hanks would play an insurance attorney years later in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.
Already on the rise, Reese Witherspoon became a massive star after her portrayal of Elle Woods, a sorority-girl-turned-law-student who enrolls at Harvard to win her boyfriend back in Legally Blonde. Watching the unassuming Elle become a pro in the courtroom, especially during the film’s high-profile murder case, is nothing short of amazing.
Two of Tom Cruise’s best movies are those that saw him play lawyers. In 1992, Cruise had the lead role of Lt. Daniel Kaffee in Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, a performance he followed up with by anchoring Sydney Pollack’s 1993 legal thriller, The Firm.
How Denzel Washington did win or receive an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of attorney Joseph "Joe" Miller in Philadelphia is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the history of the awards show. Tom Hanks receives a lot of praise for his role, and rightfully so, but Washington's dynamic portrayal of a man facing his internal battles and overcoming his own prejudice is the stuff of legend.
Gregory Peck will always be associated with his character, Atticus Finch, from the adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The Hollywood legend won an Oscar for his portrayal of the dedicated defense attorney standing up against the prejudice and racism of his community to defend an innocent man, and became the stuff of legend in the process.
Matthew McConaughey is another actor who has played an attorney on more than one occasion. The future Academy Award winner first portrayed a lawyer in Joel Schumacher’s 1996 adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, taking on the role of defense attorney Jake Brigance. A decade-and-a-half later, McConaughey played embattled criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer.
Sandra Bullock has played a lawyer on multiple occasions. There’s the 1996 legal thriller A Time to Kill in which she played law student Ellen Roark, as well as the 2002 romantic comedy, Two Weeks Notice which saw her take on the role of Lucy Kelson, an idealistic attorney who tries to break away from her real estate developer boss (played by Hugh Grant).
One of Matt Damon’s best movies, 1997’s The Rainmaker (which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola) sees the young actor take on the role of law school graduate Rudy Baylor as he takes on his first case against an insurance company. As is the case with John Grisham adaptations, the legal thriller is full of twists, turns, and bad faith deals.
Laura Dern won an Academy Award for her portrayal of divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw in Noah Baumbach’s 2019 drama, Marriage Story. To say she steals every scene she’s in would somehow be a disservice to her performance, it’s that great.
Bob Odenkirk has done a lot throughout his career, but the role he’ll most likely always be remembered for is Jimmy McGill, aka, Saul Goodman on AMC’s Breaking Bad and its spinoff/prequel Better Call Saul.
Michael B. Jordan
In addition to playing one of the best villains of the MCU’s Phase 3, anchoring the Creed franchise, and playing Tom Clancy characters, Michael B. Jordan has also played a lawyer on the big screen. In 2019, Jordan portrayed real-life attorney Bryan Stevenson in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, in which he helped wrongfully convicted death row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) overturn his sentence.
One of the iconic Hollywood stars, Paul Newman played a lawyer in Sidney Lumet’s 1982 legal drama, The Verdict. In the movie, Newman took on the role of once-promising but now down-on-his-luck attorney Frank Galvin who found himself doing the right thing for once when taking on a medical malpractice case.
Richard Marquand’s 1985 legal thriller Jagged Edge saw Glenn Close take on the role of Teddy Barnes, a defense attorney who is tasked with representing a man (played by Jeff Bridges) accused of murdering his wife. Despite taking on the case, Barnes has a hard time figuring out if he’s actually innocent or not.
One of the funniest movies of the 1990s, Jonathan Lynn’s 1992 legal comedy sees Joe Pesci take on the role of personal injury lawyer Vinny Gambini as travels from New York to the Deep South to defend his cousin who has been charged with murder.
At the height of his fame, Kevin Costner led Oliver Stone’s 1991 conspiracy thriller JFK as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. Set years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, this three-hour epic follows Garrison as he attempts to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone in the November 1963 killing.
Over the course of six seasons and 90 episodes, EGOT winner Viola Davis made waves on the ABC legal drama series, How to Get Away with Murder. Taking on the role of Annalise Keating, a defense attorney and law professor, Davis won numerous awards for her portrayal.
Though Al Pacino’s absolutely bonkers performance in The Devil’s Advocate is probably the first movie that comes to mind when talking about the actor’s lawyer roles, his performance in And Justice For All is where it’s at. His portrayal of a young and idealistic attorney tasked with defending a devilish judge is something to behold.
Keanu Reeves’ performance in The Devil’s Advocate is often overshadowed by Al Pacino literally playing Satan himself, but his portrayal of Kevin Lomax is worth checking out. The arc he experiences over the course of this 1997 supernatural horror film is something else.
Jamie Foxx has played characters on both sides of the law over the course of his career, but his most recent portrayal of flashy personal injury lawyer Willie E. Gary in 2023’s The Burial is arguably one of his best roles ever. It would be a surprise if he’s not nominated for multiple awards in the coming months.
Harrison Ford, known for roles like Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and Jack Ryan, has played a couple of different attorneys over the years. In 1990, Ford took on the role of Rozart K. “Rusty” Sabich, an on-the-rise prosecutor in Presumed Innocent. The following year, he would take on the titular part in Regarding Henry, a movie about a high-price lawyer who loses his memory after being shot.
In 2018, Felicity Jones played perhaps one of the most influential legal minds in American history with her portrayal of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. Released two years before the real RBG passed away, the movie follows the future Supreme Court justice as she takes on a landmark tax case that forever changes gender discrimination in the United States.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the first entry in Ryan Murphy’s FX anthology series retold the “Case of the Century” with an equal amount of time spent on all the major players in the infamous 1995 murder trial. Sarah Paulson received a Primetime Emmy Award and Golden Globe for her portrayal of prosecutor Marcia Clark.
Joel Schumacher’s 1994 adaptation of John Grisham’s legal thriller, The Client, saw Susan Sarandon give one of her best performances with her portrayal of Regina “Reggie” Love, a dedicated attorney who stops at nothing to protect a young child who witnessed a senseless crime connected to a lot of people in powerful positions.
Richard Gere played defense attorney Martin Vail in the 1996 legal thriller, Primal Fear, a movie with a totally wild ending. The film centers on Vail as he is tasked with defending a Chicago altar boy (played by Edward Norton) charged with the murder of a powerful Catholic archbishop.
One of the best Jim Carrey movies, as well as one of the comedian’s highest grossing per BoxOfficeMojo, Liar Liar sees the legendary comedian take on the role of Fletcher Reede, a lawyer who can no longer lie after his son wishes he would be honest for once. This radical change to Fletcher’s personality has major implications on his line of work and a high-profile case at the center of the movie.
Sterling K. Brown
Sterling K. Brown earned a Primetime Emmy Award, a Golden Globe, and a vast amount of respect for his portrayal of lead prosecutor Christohper Darden on The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Though a well-known actor before taking the role, Brown hit new heights in the wake of its success.
Emma Thompson gave one of her best performances in Jim Sheridan’s 1993 biographical crime drama, In the Name of the Father. She played an attorney tasked with representing a man (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) falsely imprisoned for a bombing he did not commit. Thompson, like other members of the cast, was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Gareth Peirce.
Adam Sandler’s Sonny Koufax isn’t the hardest working movie lawyer (he doesn’t even pass the Bar Exam when he helps represent himself in the 1999 comedy’s final act), but he does come around in the end and turn his life around. Does he still put newspapers over spills? Probably so.
Barry Levinson’s 1996 crime drama, Sleepers, sees Brad Pitt take on the role of Michael Sullivan, an assistant prosecutor who orchestrates a scheme to get two friends, with whom he suffered abuse at a juvenile detention center, acquitted in the murder of one of the guards.
One of the movies showcases Mark Ruffalo’s excellent acting, the 2019 legal drama Dark Waters sees the Marvel actor take on the role of Robert Bilott, a criminal defense attorney who decides to take on the DuPont corporation after their toxic chemicals bring illness, death, and devastation to a small farming community.
In Brian De Palma’s 1993 crime drama, Carlito’s Way, Sean Penn portrayed David Klenfield, the sleazy attorney and best friend of Al Pacino’s titular career criminal. One of Penn’s most iconic roles, the performance took his craft to the next level, even if he’s one of the most despicable practitioners of the law in the history of cinema.
One of the most popular ‘90s TV shows, Ally McBeal spent five seasons following Calista Flockhart’s titular the lawyer as she faced battles in and out of court at her Boston law firm. Over the course of the show’s run, Flockhart earned three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and universal praise for her career-defining performance. More than 20 years after the show’s conclusion, the show is still the actress’ most well-known credit.
Regardless of which side of the law their characters ended up on, these 32 actors will always be remembered for these iconic performances in movies and television. And while they may not have law degrees or know enough to pass the Bar Exam, they could probably do a great job of representing us in court. Well, maybe there are a few we would be kind of terrified to have our corner for a variety of reasons.