My Cousin Vinny – Lessons on Attorney Competence and the Correct Pronunciation of “Youths”

July 27, 2018
Laura E. McGarry

As a lawyer, I have a love/hate relationship with television shows and movies that portray the legal profession. On one hand, I enjoy watching a romanticized and dramatized version of the practice of law. If I’m being honest, I thought that’s what being a lawyer would be like before I went to law school. On the other hand, I am often frustrated by the unrealistic portrayals of the legal process and the expectations that creates for clients. Although TV shows like Law and Order make it seem like you can commit a crime, go to trial, and be acquitted in spectacular fashion in less than 10 days, in real life, it takes a whole lot longer and is usually much less dramatic.

So when the Lancaster Bar Association advertised a continuing education class called “Ethics, Trial Practice, Two Yoots and One Cousin Vinny,” I was cautiously intrigued. My husband, also a lawyer (yes, our dinner table conversations are as contentious as you are imagining), and I, along with about 50 other attorneys, including RKG’s own all-star litigator Brandon Harter, showed up one evening last week to the sold out event at the Bar Association to see what it was all about.

In addition to the terrific snacks (pizza, popcorn, licorice — all movie watching necessities), the program was excellent. It consisted of a viewing of the 1992 classic comedy “My Cousin Vinny” interspersed with discussions about criminal procedure, courtroom decorum, professional responsibility, unethical behavior, efficient cross-examination and the role of expert witnesses. Discussions on ethics and trial tactics were led by John May, past-president of the Bar Association, and Joe Roda, one of Lancaster’s best trial attorneys. Aside from the quality of the presentation, what struck me the most was how everyone in the room laughed like we were watching it the first time even though many of us had seen it more times than we cared to admit. Vinny’s antics, from his ridiculous courtroom attire to his Brooklyn attitude that was not well received in the Alabama courtroom (as it might not here in conservative Lancaster County), struck a particularly funny note in the room full of lawyers.

Although a comedy centered on a bumbling, inexperienced lawyer defending his nephew in a capital murder trial in a very unwelcoming jurisdiction, the film offers countless lessons and examples of how to act and how not to act in a courtroom. A main focus of the discussion was whether Vinny, who admitted to passing the bar exam only 6-weeks before the trial and who had no prior trial experience, should have agreed to take the case.

Pennsylvania’s Code of Professional Conduct demands that a lawyer competently represent a client, which requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation. In Vinny’s case, he lacked pretty much every characteristic of a competent lawyer apart from a great set of cross-examination skills. But throughout the course of the film he was able to cobble together a successful defense with some luck, a few sleepless nights and the help of his expert auto mechanic fiancée. In real life, absent the movie magic, the likely outcome of this scenario is no laughing matter: a guilty verdict and death sentence for Vinny’s nephew.

While the program was a lot of fun, it highlighted the importance and value of competent legal counsel in any case. When considering whether to hire a lawyer to take your case, every client should be doing research and asking questions to determine the reputation and level of skill, experience and knowledge that the lawyer has.

A good first step is to look at the lawyer’s or firm’s website, which will often contain information about the lawyer’s background, education and experience. The website will also let you know the areas of law that the lawyer or firm practice. Our website contains details about all of our attorneys, our areas of practice, and our experience.

Next, contact the lawyer to set up a consultation. This is not only an opportunity for the lawyer to learn more about your situation, but also for you to learn more about the lawyer and the quality of representation they will provide to you.  All of the attorneys at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP are happy to meet with you to discuss your legal needs and prepare you to take the next steps. We promise, unlike Vinny, we won’t be wearing maroon tuxedos to court.

Laura McGarry is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Penn State Law and provides legal counsel to individuals and businesses in Lancaster and surrounding communities. She has seen My Cousin Vinny at least ten times, but still doesn’t understand what “positraction” and “limited-slip differential” mean. She does, however, know how long it takes to cook grits.