Judge Joseph F. Anderson Jr., J.
Twenty-five years ago, 20th Century Fox Studios set up shop in Monticello, Georgia, to film a whodunit comedy. The movie's director, Jonathan Lynn—an Englishman with a law degree from Cambridge—imposed a rather unusual directive: All courtroom scenes were to be technically accurate.
The resulting movie, My Cousin Vinny, quickly became an all-time classic. In 2008, the American Bar Association Journal named it the third best legal movie of all time. The two that ranked above: To Kill a Mockingbird and Twelve Angry Men. Intellectual heavyweights, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, rate it as their all-time favorite movie. Marissa Tomei, then an unknown actress without much screen experience, won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Moreover, because of Lynn's insistence on proper courtroom procedures, snippets from the movie are used by law professors around the country to teach evidence, ethics, civility, criminal procedure and trial advocacy. The movie has demonstrated phenomenal staying power, and memorable lines from the film ("What is a 'youte'?") have achieved cult status.
The story line is simple enough: Two college students (Bill Gambini and Stan Rothenstein) from New England are traveling through the deep South when they stop for food at a convenience store—the delightfully named "Sac-O-Suds." Shortly thereafter, they find themselves in the clutches of the local sheriff, charged with murdering the clerk at the Sac-O-Suds.
Five hundred miles from home and with no funds to employ counsel, they use their one phone call to contact Vincent La Guardia Gambini, Bill's cousin, to come to their aid. Vinny, a newly-minted attorney from Brooklyn, New York, arrives in the quintessential Southern town along with his Chinese-food-loving, unemployed hairdresser, car expert/girlfriend, Mona Lisa Vito (Tomei) as the proverbial fish out of water.
Vinny's leather jacket, silver-tipped boots and Brooklyn accent make it apparent to everyone in the courtroom that he is "not from around here." He has neither seen nor tasted "a grit" before. Appearing in a capital murder case immediately after passing the bar exam, Vinny is clearly in over his head.
In the courtroom, things "go South" in short order. Vinny offends the judge with his casual dress and less than professional courtroom demeanor. He lies to the judge about his criminal trial experience. He is twice held in contempt of court. And, after each day's adjournment, he finds himself in hot water with Mona Lisa, to whom he has promised marriage, but with the nuptials to be scheduled "after I win my first case." Things go so badly for Vinny that moviegoers just knew he would end up victorious, as he did.
The movie is actually a paean to the American system of justice. Two wrongfully accused individuals are acquitted, and everyone (including the prosecutor, defense attorney and the judge) walks out of the courtroom delighted with the result. And Vinny and Mona Lisa ride off into the sunset in their Cadillac Coupe de Ville to tie the knot.
It is easy to dismiss Vinny as a bumbling, short-tempered and ill-prepared lawyer who stumbles onto the truth in the course of a trial that he is clearly not ready for. However, I submit that by the time Judge Chamberlain Howell (Fred Gwynne) dismisses all charges, Vinny has laid down some teaching points that all of us in the legal profession would do well to study. Over the years, I have watched My Cousin Vinny dozens of times. In tribute to Vinny I have culled what I believe are his 10 most salient characteristics that every lawyer should strive to emulate.
Early in the film, we learn that Vinny has failed the bar exam not once, but five times! He succeeded, however, on his sixth try. The ink is barely dry on his law license when he finds himself in hostile territory defending a cousin who will probably never pay him.
The local train, noisy pigs, a plant whistle and a screech owl keep Vinny awake at night; Lisa chooses an inappropriate time to talk about her biological clock; and the town's only dry cleaner closes "because of the flu" with Vinny's only suit locked inside. His judge is a fastidious Yale Law graduate and a stickler for the rules who obviously does not observe casual Fridays.
Despite the many setbacks he endures, Vinny's devotion to his clients and the cause of justice never waivers. The lesson here: Good lawyers are not quitters.
Abraham Lincoln's remarkable journey through a series of setbacks, both legal and political, has been well-chronicled. Another lawyer-President, Theodore Roosevelt, concisely laid down what should be the credo for lawyers everywhere:
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Comb the pages of history and you will find countless examples of lawyers who refused to give up in and out of the courtroom.
2. Cross-Examination Part I
The late Irving Younger secured his position in the pantheon of great lawyers with lectures, books and articles on all aspects of trial advocacy and evidence. Perhaps his most widely-read article, Cicero on Cross-Examination, boldly sets out Younger's "Ten Commandments of Cross-Examination." Hundreds of articles have been written on the subject of cross-examination, but, in my view, no one comes close to Younger in setting out the dos and don'ts of this important aspect of trial practice. Several of Younger's Commandments: • Be brief.
• Short questions, plain words.
• Never ask a question to which you do not know the answer.
• Minimize the opportunities for the witness to explain.
• Do not ask the witness to repeat the testimony he gave on direct exam.
• Save the explanation for summation.