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1 Apr 2011 - 4:46 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

With his chiselled chest concealed beneath a double-breasted suit, Matthew McConaughey has painted a cosy little corner for himself as the big-screen's golden boy of the legal fraternity. His gallery of lawyers most often start out as cocky and egocentric, but they always have strong ideals and possess an unshakable faith in the role of the lawyer to seek justice for the underdog.

This carefully-cultivated image began in 1996 with Joel Schumacher's A Time To Kill, and took on historical importance in Steven Spielberg's Amistad (in which McConaughey played the curly-haired legal upstart taking the first steps in the fight against slavery), and continues unfettered in his new release, Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer.

The legal fraternity, entrusted with upholding the virtues of social fairness, has provided rich-pickings for early-career actors to show off their range. The 'McConaughey archetype' as we'll call it, presents a character arc that enables young actors to grow from 'inexperienced novice' into the 'moralistic crusader'; variations of the role did wonders for the careers of John Barrymore (Counsellor at Law), Henry Fonda (Young Mr Lincoln), Cher (Suspect), Jessica Lange (Music Box), Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men; The Firm), Keanu Reeves (The Devil's Advocate), Matt Damon (The Rainmaker) and...ahem... Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde).

The temptations that present themselves to your average courtroom brawler can often make for more complex and fascinating portrayals. For instance, the lawyer might find themselves drawn into the dark, sociopathic personalities of their clients: Rebecca De Mornay in Guilty as Sin; Glenn Close in Jagged Edge; Michael Douglas in The Star Chamber (though his lawyer Dan Gallagher only has himself to blame in Fatal Attraction); Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief; Richard Gere in Primal Fear, before fully embracing the immoral darkness himself as legal eagle Billy Flynn in Chicago.

From the edge of the moral abyss, many onscreen lawyers fall into a morass of their own ego and greed and manipulate the law and their client's lives with shameful disregard: Though he would expose such evil in 2007's Michael Clayton, George Clooney was smugness personified in Intolerable Cruelty; Dennis Quaid's Arnie Metzger double-double-crosses one too many powerful people in Traffic; firm partner Romain Duris flees a fatal crime of passion and turns his knowledge of the law into a covert life-on-the-run in Eric Lartigau's The Big Picture; though Christian Bale's Batman and Heath Ledger's Joker are the conflicted heart of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, it's Aaron Eckhardt's attorney Harvey 'Two-Face' Dent who is the film's tortured soul; and Takashi Shimura as the corrupt lawyer Hiruta, who accepts a bribe to throw a case, in Akira Kurosawa's prescient Scandal.

Other actors whose characters have crossed the ethical line include Sean Penn (Carlito's Way), William Hurt (Body Heat), Jim Carrey (Liar Liar), Bill Murray (Wild Things), Edward Norton as the enabler Alan Isaacson in The People vs Larry Flynt and, perhaps most ruthlessly of all, Robert Duvall as consigliere Tom Hagen in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part I and Part II.

There are also those personalities whose bird's eye view of the erosion and decay of the principles of the judicial system results in a certain mental unravelling: Al Pacino flips out before Jack Warden's woman-beating judge (“You're out of order! The whole trial is out of order!”) in Norman Jewison's ...And Justice For All!; Jean Debucourt's legendary defender Aubunel convinces a vengeful husband (Michel Simon) to commit the 'perfect murder' and is then forced to defend him in Sacha Guitry's black comedy La Poison (1951; remade in 2001 as Un crime au paradis); Jack Nicholson's unhinged George Hanson, whose stoned cross country journey with Wyatt and Billy in Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider symbolised a changing view of the law amongst American society; class-action representative Ian Holm is overwhelmed by grief in the face of natural injustice in Atom Egoyan's searing The Sweet Hereafter; and Barbet Schroeder's documentary Terror's Advocate examines the real-life barrister Jacques Vergès, who dedicated his life to defending the indefensible (amongst his clients are Nazi War criminal Klaus Barbie and Holocaust denier Roger Garaudy).

By and large, movie lawyers have been the heroes. Whether a conduit for the rantings of the clearly insane (Richard Dreyfus speaking for Barbra Streisand in Nuts) or defending a pig accused of murder (Colin Firth in The Advocate), the best onscreen legal representations fight for civilisation's ideals. That may be freedom of thought (Spencer Tracy and Frederic March going head-to-head in Inherit the Wind); honouring the horror that humanity endures during times of conflict (Jack Thompson in Breaker Morant; Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory; Kevin Costner in JFK; Aleksander Bardini in Krzysztof Kieslowski's No End); holding corporate greed accountable (Paul Newman in The Verdict; John Travolta in A Civil Action); the crippling social effects of poverty and class intolerance (Humphrey Bogart in Nicholas Ray's Knock on Any Door); or, most famously, racism.

In Robert Mulligan's 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's seminal work To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck's performance as small-town lawyer Atticus Finch (pictured) was steeped in such refined stoicism and quiet determination to see right be done in the face of prejudice, it resonates to this day. Forty-five years after the movie premiered, the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest American movie character of all time.

Finch came from an era before lawyers were rock stars; before a time when celebrity lawyers like Allen Dershowitz (portrayed by Ron Silver in the von Bulow biopic Reversal of Fortune) or Johnny Cochrane (mimicked in the form of Seinfeld's Jackie Chiles) craved notoriety over justice. Perhaps the photogenic Matthew McConaughey is the personification of how modern society sees its lawmen: spirited, morally-centred, buffed and well-tanned.