by Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Movies about courtroom trials are enjoyed by lawyers and the general public alike. The genre has earned its place among the classics with titles like: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Inherit the Wind, and even My Cousin Vinnie. But there is one commonality in all of those movies: They focus on criminal trials. While there are a handful of films that focus on civil litigation -- Philadelphia, Runaway Jury, or The Verdict -- they are far fewer in number, and none have reached the same level of pop culture familiarity. Taunya Lovell Banks, Professor at the University of Maryland's School of Law, recently wrote about that gap in an article, "Civil Trials: A Film Illusion?" (Banks, 2017). Her focus was on the ways such films serve educational and inspirational purposes, transmitting broad messages about the democratic value of civil trials. "Films," she writes, "are cultural documents that embody a society's attitudes about, and views of, the law and the jury system." Most, however, focus on the legal resolution of criminal rather than civil disputes.
Professor Banks links the paucity of civil trial movies with a decline in the civil trial itself. Referencing projects to try to address the decline, like NYU's Civil Jury Project, she notes that civil jury trials are well on their way toward "disappearing from the American legal landscape," and she looks at the effect of a declining civil trial on popular culture, including legal films. It is not that fewer civil trials necessarily cause fewer civil trial movies, or vice versa, but rather that both are linked to some features of the civil trial that seem to resonate less with popular culture. Drawing from several of professor Banks' arguments, my own observation is that some of the factors that tend to make civil trial movies less common and less influential are the same factors that often make the civil trials themselves less memorable, harder to attend to, and ultimately more difficult to care about. And some of those factors can be addressed through better, and dare I say it, more cinematic trial presentation. In this post, I'll take a look at those factors and some of the ways good civil litigators can address them.