Lessons Learned from Vincent L. Gambini

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.).

20th Anniversary: “My Cousin Vinny” (1992)

Twenty years ago tomorrow, on March 13, 1992, the popular legal comedy My Cousin Vinny hit theatres.  If you’re a lawyer, you’ve probably seen the film many, many times and quoted it just as often. Written and co-produced by Dale Launer, and directed by Jonathan Lynn, the film stars Joe Pesci as Vincent LaGuardia Gambini, a New Yorker and new bar member defending two capital murder defendants in faraway Alabama.  It’s a funny, funny movie. Upon its release, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby noted: “The film has a secure and sophisticated sense of what makes farce so delicious, which may not be surprising, since its credentials are about as impeccable as you can find in the peccable atmosphere of Hollywood.”  But there is a truth that accompanies the humor. Jack Garner of the Gannett News Service, writing at the time, saw fit to include this statement in his review: “And a lawyer friend even tells me he found the courtroom segments more natural and believable than he’s seen in some for-more-prestige judicial dramas.” In March of 1993, a full year after the film’s release, actress Marisa Tomei, who played Vinny’s fiancee (and an expert witness to boot),  would win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 65th Academy Awards. Even two decades after its release, the film continues to resonate with lawyer viewers. In 2008, the ABA Journal named it the third best legal film of all time.  (The ABA Journal would also name the character of Vinny number twelve on the list of Top 25 fictional lawyers; its readers, in a popular vote, chose Vinny as number one.). We here at Abnormal Use have always been fans of this movie, so we decided to commemorate its twentieth anniversary with a full week’s worth of coverage.  As you know, in the past, we have featured interviews with Hollywood celebrities on the anniversaries of the release of their legal themed films, including an interview with the writers and producers of the 1991 film Class Action last year this time last year.  However, for this occasion, we’ve gone all out. This week, we’ll be posting  interviews with members of the cast and crew, our own thoughts and memories of the film, and links to other bloggers’ anniversary thoughts.

We are particularly excited about this project and offer the following preview of what to expect this week:

Later Today

My Cousin Vinny – More Than A Movie.”  In this piece, writer Nick Farr explains how My Cousin Vinny changed both his life and the outcome of a 7th grade student council election. (Yes, you read that right.).

Lessons Learned From Vincent L. Gambini.”  In this piece, our newest contributor, Rob Green, offer six practical lessons that lawyers can glean from watching the film. If you think about it, the film is its own continuing education course with many practice tips contained therein.  In fact, we should probably all get CLE credit for watching it again, don’t you think?

Review: Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just For You.”  Did you know that years after the film’s release, Joe Pesci released an album in character as Vinny? Rob Green somehow found a copy of this long forgotten album and drafted a review.  Spoiler alert: the album is not for the faint of heart.  Or the faint of ears, for that matter.

Tuesday, March 13

Interview with Director Jonathan Lynn. You know Jonathan Lynn’s work.  He directed Clue, Trial & Error, and a number of other beloved films.  What you might not know is that Lynn once studied law at Cambridge. In this interview with Nick Farr, Lynn recalls the shooting of the film and the funniest moment of its production.

Wednesday, March 14

Interview with writer/co-producer Dale Launer.  You also know Launer’s work.  He wrote Ruthless People and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. In his interview with Nick Farr, Launer, as the creator of the Vinny character, shares his memories on how he developed the character and brought him to life.  Launer also reveals the details of the planned sequel that never made it into existence.

Thursday, March 15

Interview with cast member James Rebhorn, who played George Wilbur, the prosecution’s automotive expert witness from the FBI.  Rebhorn, a veteran character actor, has played many lawyers, judges, and jurors over the course of his career, and he shares his memories of the film and thoughts on the craft with our editor, Jim Dedman.  “Seinfeld” Alert: Rebhorn also played the district attorney who prosecuted Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer in the “Seinfeld” series finale, so of course we asked him about that, as well.

Interview with cast member Mitchell Whitfield, who played Stan Rothenstein, one of two murder defendant clients represented by Vinny.  Whitfield would go on to play Barry, Rachel’s former fiancee, on “Friends.”  Whitfield spoke to our own Steve Buckingham about his memories of the film, its place in cinema history, and of course, what it is like to kiss Jennifer Aniston on a sitcom set.

Interview with cast member Raynor Scheine, who played Ernie Crane, the eyewitness whose testimony Vinny demolishes due to the presence of dirty windows and vegetation in his field of view. Scheine, a denizen of both the stage and screen, shares some behind the scenes memories with our own Nick Farr.

Friday, March 16

My Cousin Vinny Links.  We asked a number of our favorite law bloggers – including some  heavy hitters in the legal blogosphere – to rewatch the film and provide their thoughts on the film twenty years after its release.  They’ll be posting their reviews throughout the week, and on Friday, we’ll provide links to all of them and post excerpts from each of their posts for your review and commentary here.

As the days proceed, we will activate the links to this content above.