“Didn’t they teach you that in law school?”
“No. That’s not what they teach you. They teach you contracts, precedents, interpretations. Then the firm that hires you teaches procedures. Or you could go to court and watch.”
So goes the exchange between Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) and Vinny Gambino (Joe Pesci) after Lisa bails him out for contempt of court in the 1992 classic My Cousin Vinny.
Directed by Jonathan Lynn and written by Dale Launer, My Cousin Vinny tells the story of two Brooklynites heading to college (Bill, played by the Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio, and Stan, played by Mitchell Whitfield), who are charged with murdering a store clerk in Alabama. With no money to hire a lawyer, they turn to a family recommendation: Bill’s lawyer cousin, Vinny.
The true nature of the narrative comes into focus when Vinny’s experience (or lack thereof) is revealed–he only passed the bar six weeks prior, after six years of trying and six attempts (it’s like he’s cursed). From that point on, we watch Vinny go through trial by fire in an Alabama courthouse, learning firsthand the importance of mentorship.
“I wanted to win my first case without any help from anybody.”
On first viewing, it would appear that Vinny’s main adversaries are the judge (Herman Munster–I mean–Fred Gwynne) and the prosecutor (Lane Smith). If you dig deeper, you realize that the antagonist is also the protagonist, Vinny.
Yes, he’s his own worst enemy. At best, he turns down advice, and at worst, he outright disregards it, putting himself and his clients at risk. (The stakes for losing the case is the execution of Bill and Stan). That’s where we get one of the most significant lessons on mentorship in the film: it’s okay to accept help.
Vinny’s view on winning the case without help is neither noble nor wise. His repeated repudiation of advice leads to mistake after mistake (and quite a few contempt of court charges). It isn’t until he takes the advice, albeit reluctantly, that he begins to act “lawyerly” and make headway in the trial. When he fully admits that he needs help from others, he wins the case, but more on that later.
“This is not the forum to be cavalier.”
Vinny’s first legal mentor is Judge Chamberlain. Their first meeting takes place in the judge’s chambers. When Chamberlain walks in, Vinny has his feet up on the judge’s desk, wearing a leather jacket, and acts curt. It’s at this point that Vinny’s lack of real-world experience becomes clear to the viewer and the judge.
Chamberlain plainly instructs how to practice law in his court. He expects professionalism (including wearing a tie and a suit that “had better be made out of some sort of... cloth”) and that Vinny follows procedure, going as far as to give him a book on Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. Chamberlain even employs a great mentorship tactic, where he doesn’t just assume that Vinny understands but clearly asks. (We talk more about feedback etiquette here.)
Unfortunately, Vinny doesn’t recognize Chamberlain as a mentor or as being helpful. He outright rejects the judge's words and shows up to the arraignment wearing a leather jacket and having no clue what to do at an arraignment. His flippant rejection of the guidance lands him in contempt of court–he just doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut and when to follow advice. Vinny’s attitude doesn’t prevent the judge from continually correcting and pushing Vinny in the right direction. That’s a sign of a good mentor.
“You did good out there today, Yankee.”
Vinny’s second legal mentor comes in the way of his courtroom opponent, prosecutor Jim Trotter III. While their mentorship relationship isn’t as direct as Chamberlain's (he is, after all, opposing counsel), his courtroom manner and professionalism serve as a role model for Vinny. From their first meeting in the courtroom, Vinny begins to emulate Jim’s behavior, moving from sitting on the counsel table to behind it and pulling a notepad out of his messenger bag.
Despite residing on opposite sides of the courtroom, they have a cordial relationship. Vinny and Jim meet a few times outside of the trial, including a scene where they share their lawyer origin stories. (This is where you realize that Jim may be against Vinny in court, but he is by no means a villain; he truly believes in the rule of law and prosecuting wrongdoers.) His friendly, open demeanor allows Vinny to ask questions about the case safely. Jim doesn’t take advantage of Vinny’s obvious lack of experience and instead makes everything as easy as possible, including using his staff to copy documents for Vinny.
This is another excellent piece of advice this film shares–be open to mentorship opportunities from non-traditional sources; you never know where you’ll find them. Being adversarial, shutting down help, and burning bridges can cut off avenues that could boost your career and illuminate critical pieces of information to close critical knowledge gaps.
“Oh yeah, you blend.”
Finally, one of the strongest mentorship relationships in the film is not between a mentor and a mentee but what we refer to as co-mentorship. Think gym buddy–someone who motivates you, lends a sympathetic ear, and calls you out when needed. Mona Lisa, Vinny’s fiance, fills this role.
From the very beginning, she tries to keep Vinny’s ego and reality in check. (Let’s be honest; she’s right–just because Vinny is wearing cowboy boots doesn’t mean he blends in with Alabama residents.) Throughout the film, she pushes him to be a better lawyer. She studies the procedures that Vinny hasn’t, suggests tactics, bails him out after each contempt charge, and often reminds him that his clients’ lives are literally at stake.
A mentorship relationship like theirs is invaluable. Vinny doesn’t recognize her importance; instead, he takes her for granted. The ultimate turning point in the film is when Vinny realizes that his repeated rejection of Lisa’s help has jeopardized the case and their relationship. Mona is essential to proving Bill and Stan’s innocence, and Vinny completes his character arc when he finally asks for her aid.
“So what's your problem?”
“My problem is, I wanted to win my first case without any help from anybody.”
“Well, I guess that plan's moot.”
“You know, this could be a sign of things to come. You win all your cases, but with somebody else's help, right? You win case after case, and then afterwards you have to go up to somebody and you have to say, ‘Thank you.’” [pause] Oh, my God, what a … nightmare!”
Moral of My Cousin Vinny? Don’t reject help. Don’t reject mentorship. It takes a community in the legal field, and strong mentorship is key to avoiding mistakes, tackling complex challenges, and being the best lawyer for your client.
Find your community and mentorship within Metwork. Request a demo today to see how Metwork can elevate your practice.
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