Aside from being a downright hilarious movie, My Cousin Vinny offers some interesting lessons for aspiring trial attorneys. Some were intentional, some not, but either way, there’s some good stuff. So, without further ado, here are six lessons learned from Vinny:
Lesson 1 – Pick Your Battles
Scene: Vinny doesn’t ask any questions at the preliminary hearing. His client, Stan, angrily asks, “Why didn’t you ask them any questions? Maybe if you’d put up some kind of a fight, you could have gotten the case thrown out!” Vinny calmly responds, “Hey, Stan, you’re in Ala-f*&%in’-bama. You come from New York. You killed a good ol’ boy. There is no way this is not going to trial!”
Lesson: Sometimes, as an attorney, you need to know when to pick your battles. Of course, by this point in the movie, Vinny didn’t have all the great exculpatory evidence he acquired later. However, Vinny is probably right that there was no way the case would be resolved without a trial. It may have been a smart move to play it close to the vest and not reveal too much of his trial strategy.
Lesson 2 – No Argument in the Opening Statement
Scene: The prosecutor, Jim Trotter, delivers a textbook opening statement – a fine recitation of the prosecution’s version of the facts combined with a clever attempt to massage the jury’s collective ego. Then, Vinny stands and delivers his own rather brief opening statement: “Uh . . . everything that guy just said is bullsh*t. Thank you.”
Lesson: You’ve been dying to deliver this same opening statement for years, haven’t you? It’s punchy; it cuts right to the chase. But alas, such a retort is an improper argument. Perhaps Vinny should have saved that approach for his closing argument.
Lesson 3 – Match Your Negotiation Strategy to Your Opponent
Scene: Vinny finds out his girlfriend got stiffed on a game of pool with some yokel. He flies down to the pool hall to collect, and the yokel asks, “How ‘bout I just kick your ass?” Vinny retorts, “Oh, a counter-offer. This is a tough decision here. Get my ass kicked or collect $200? Well, here’s my counter-offer: What if I were just to kick the ever loving sh!t out of you? . . . If I was to kick the sh!t out of you, do I get the money?”
Lesson: So much for that “Getting to YES” model where everybody wins. Vinny invokes the old school tradition in his negotiations. Sometimes, that works. It’s all about knowing your opponent. Some are unreasonable. There’s no getting to “yes” without cracking skulls and forcing them to into agreement. Vinny’s method succeeded, and he eventually collected that $200.
Lesson 4 – Do Some Digging
Scene: There’s a long montage where Vinny performs his own investigation into the case. He has his girlfriend take some photographs along the way. Vinny is clearly annoyed when she’s trying to show him the pictures in the middle of trial. He starts ranting, “Where’d you shoot this, from up in a tree? What’s this over here? It’s dog sh!t… That’s great! Dog sh%t, what a clue! . . . I should’ve asked you along time ago for these pictures.” But then he realizes there’s a picture of the tire tracks, which really is the case cracker.
Lesson: Most of the time, the facts will make or break your case. As an attorney, you can’t always wait for the facts and evidence to come to you. Even when you think you’ve got everything you need, keep digging. Get out there and visit the accident scene, personally inspect the physical evidence, and talk to everyone you think knows anything about the case. You never know what you are going to find if you keep digging. It sure paid off for Vinny in his trial, and some day, that same diligence may pay off for you in one of your cases.
Lesson 5 – Be Collegial with Fellow Attorneys
Scene: At one point in the movie, Vinny and the prosecutor engage in friendly discussion about their entry into the legal profession. Later in the film, the prosecutor takes Vinny on a hunting trip, lets him borrow his cabin, and even congratulates him after Vinny’s victory over him at trial.
Lesson: It’s a given that you should be a zealous advocate for your client. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be civil, or even friendly, with opposing counsel. At the end of the day, you are both just doing your job. As everyone knows, one’s profession is more enjoyable when you’re working with friendly and respectful people. Two attorneys should be able to duke it out in the courtroom and then grab a drink together after the trial concludes.
Lesson 6 – Stay Calm
Scene: As Vinny’s defense of his clients begins to unravel, he asks himself, “How the f*&k did I get into this sh!t?” Luckily, Vinny keeps it together and eventually earns his clients their freedom.
Lesson: For many attorneys, your first trial will feel just like this movie (although hopefully, it won’t be as bad in reality). You’ll have things that will go way off course, and there will probably be a point where you feel like you’re in way over your head. You may even start asking yourself “Am I cut out for this?” or “How did I get into this?” Don’t despair. Stay calm and press on. By your second or third trial, things will seem much better.
These are just a few of the lessons to be learned from My Cousin Vinny. The next time you watch the movie, find a legal pad and take notes. There are many other lessons, such as proper courtroom attire, enunciation, candor toward the court, and the importance of procedural rules. It’s almost a law school course in and of itself.
(To see a full index of our My Cousin Vinny twentieth anniversary coverage, please see here.).