Lessons for new attorneys from “My Cousin Vinny”

February 5, 2013

Pop Culture & the LawAs legal films go, the general consensus is that My Cousin Vinny is one of the most well-regarded in recent history.

If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend doing so – even if you’re not a practicing attorney.

If you are a practicing attorney, however, I would definitely recommend watching it or re-watching it if it had been awhile since you had last seen it.

I happened to watch it recently – the first time that I’ve watched it since I began practicing – and I’ve found myself with an entirely new appreciation of the film.

This appreciation is especially poignant for me because I started out in much the same way that Vinny did: as a solo practitioner.

The film actually contains some pretty great lessons for fresh lawyers starting out as Vinny did.

Vinny, a self-described personal injury attorney, has only been practicing for six weeks when he takes on his first murder trial.  He has had no litigation experience whatsoever.

And a criminal law setting is not one where you’re going to want to jump into the proverbial litigation deep end; your opposing counsel, the prosecutor, spends most of his or her day in the courtroom, leaving you at a distinct disadvantage.

If you do happen to follow Vinny’s lead and start with a criminal case, there are several mistakes made by Vinny that should be easy to avoid.

First, and most obviously, always wear a suit (or analogous professional attire if you’re female).  Always.

True, you may not face a judge that holds you in contempt of court for failing to dress properly (as Vinny did), but, best case scenario, you will get a stern talking to in front of the entire courtroom.

Second, don’t reject assistance from those trying to help.

In the film, Vinny rejected all help and advice from his fiancé because he wanted to win his “first case without any help from anybody.”

When you’re starting out like Vinny, not only should you not reject any help you should get, you should be actively seeking it out.

Like Vinny said in the film, they don’t teach you “a lot of procedure” in law school.  Even if you took a class on specific state procedure, a great deal of it can’t be learned from being in a classroom.

So where do you learn it?

Again, as aptly pointed out by Vinny, “the firm that hires you, they teach you procedures” or “you can go to court and watch” (or, best case scenario, you can find an experienced attorney to shadow).

Of course, since Vinny didn’t have the benefit of any of these experiences, he decided that he was just going to “learn it as he [went].”

One problem with this approach, though, is that it only works if you don’t mind feeling the consequent crushing public embarrassment in the courtroom.

The other, more serious, problem is that you could do serious harm to your client’s case, as what happened in the film during the probable cause hearing: Vinny didn’t cross-examine any of the state’s witnesses, despite the massive flaws in their respective testimonies that Vinny later uncovered during cross-examination at trial.

But just because Vinny was able to salvage the case after his early mistakes doesn’t mean that anyone else would have the same luck.

And that’s why Vinny was able to succeed, despite his mistakes: luck.

By definition, one cannot control their own luck.  So what can you control?

The one overriding factor that caused most of Vinny’s mistakes was his overconfidence. 

He went into the case thinking that it would be “no problem” to win it.

It was only much later that he fully understood the gravity of his situation, when he admitted to his fiancé that he was “really scared” and rhetorically asked, using typical attorney profanity, how he had gotten himself into his current situation.

The problem , though, is that Vinny’s confidence accounted for much of his success in the courtroom.  Had he been debilitated by insecurity, it’s unlikely that he would have been anything more than a shadow of the effective litigator that he became by the end.

Thus, it’s necessary for attorneys to have a good dose of self-confidence (even if it masks an inner uncertainty), but the trick is maintaining a delicate balance between keeping your confidence up and fully grasping the reality of the situation – in this case, understanding how much you don’t know.

Even though it might be overwhelming to focus on what you don’t know about practicing law, hopefully you’ll be able to find some humor in it as humor is found in Vinny’s inexperience.