Legally Blonde turns 20: “I became a lawyer because of Elle Woods”

As Reese Witherspoon’s Legally Blonde turns 20 this year, here’s how pink-clad go-getter Elle Woods inspired one woman to become an associate at a top law firm. 

Twenty years ago, we were introduced to the rose-tinted world of sorority-girl-turned-law-student Elle Woods when Legally Blonde was released in UK cinemas. Adapted from Amanda Brown’s novel of the same name, the 2001 chick flick directed by Robert Luketic tells the story of Elle (Reese Witherspoon) as she follows ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) to Harvard Law School after he dumps her for a “more serious” woman. “If I’m going to be elected senator by the time I’m 30, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn,” he tells her.

While Elle initially applies to Harvard simply to win Warner back, she soon realises that he’ll never think she’s good enough. So, the ever-positive Elle decides to become a lawyer herself and prove her snobby fellow students and sceptical friends, family and law professors wrong. She dedicates herself to her studies and goes on to excel in her courses, win her first murder case and graduate as class valedictorian, while Warner “graduated without honours, without a girlfriend and without any job offers.” 

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Elle’s sincerity, infectious positivity and insistence on unapologetically being herself gained her many fans – the film made over $140 million worldwide – and Legally Blonde quickly became a classic. Its success granted it a 2003 sequel – which, alongside the original, is frequently shown on TV and available to stream on Netflix – as well as a Tony-nominated Broadway musical adaptation and a 2009 direct-to-DVD spin-off. Its legacy has also been stoked by high-profile fans such as Ariana Grande, who famously paid homage to the film in the music video for thank u, next. And, last year, it was announced that Mindy Kaling and Dan Goor were writing Legally Blonde 3, scheduled for release in 2022.

But beyond its feel-good fluffy exterior, Legally Blonde has resonated with viewers over the past 20 years for its empowering messages to always be true to yourself and stand up for what you believe in. And, it’s even inspired some women to pursue a career in law, just like its protagonist. In a 2018 interview on The Today Show, Witherspoon said, “I’ve had more young women come up to me and say, ‘I went to law school because of Elle Woods.’ It’s very incredible to see how long movies can last and how important they can be to young people, generation after generation.” 

Inspired by the likes of Legally Blonde and Erin Brockovich, Angela McCarthy knew quite early on that she wanted to pursue a career in the legal profession and studied Law at the University of Leicester before attending law school. After working as a paralegal for a short while, Angela secured a training contract that allowed her to explore different areas of law. She ultimately chose to specialise in property law – something she’d explored greatly as a paralegal – and has been an associate at Lawrence Stephens for nearly four months.

“When I was doing my A-Levels and thinking about my future, there was definitely an element of me that wanted my career to have an impact on people’s lives and to enable me to help others at the most important junctures of their lives,” she tells Stylist

McCarthy has watched Legally Blonde so many times, but thinks, “When I first watched it, I probably thought ‘that’s exactly what I want to do.’ I wanted to go to court and completely unravel cases and stick up for people. [Films like this] made law look really exciting and glamorous.” In reality, she admits the job isn’t like this on a day-to-day basis. But, she’s realised there are so many different paths you can take within the legal profession where you’re still fulfilling that core value of helping people, even if it’s not the big glamorous court cases you see on screen.  

Angela McCarthy law legally blonde
Angela McCarthy is an associate at Lawrence Stephens law firm after being inspired by Legally Blonde.

As for why Legally Blonde is still so loved all these years later, its enduring popularity ultimately lies both in the feel-good factor it possesses and the powerful messages at its core that remain just as relevant today as they did in 2001, which have inspired generations of young women to work hard, recognise their worth and, above everything, stay true to themselves.

Angela says: “There’s just something about [the film] where anything seems possible.” She related to Elle because, unlike many of her Harvard classmates, Elle didn’t come from a dynasty of lawyers. “This hit home for me because I was from a working-class family and went to an ordinary comprehensive school. When I went to university, I was surrounded by people that were privately educated and privileged.” In the film, Elle similarly found herself surrounded by people she had little in common with, but her positivity and optimism helped her through it. 

She recalls a moment in the film when Elle is going through the application process and asked about her backup plan. She simply responds, “I don’t need backups. I’m going to Harvard.” For Angela, “it rang true that if I worked hard, I could do whatever I wanted to do. And that was law.”

Unlike the era’s typical ‘strong female character’, à la Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise, Elle derives her strength from her traditionally feminine traits and pursuits, not in spite of them. She even wins her first murder case because of her expert knowledge that you should never get your hair wet within 24 hours of having a perm, at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate, obviously. 

While misogynistic viewpoints traditionally associate masculinity with strength and intelligence, and femininity with frivolity; Legally Blonde turns these stereotypes on their head. Elle proves that you don’t have to reject your femininity to be perceived as smart and strong, and in the eyes of many fans, she is a feminist icon.

While Elle’s initial motivation for attending law school was admittedly not so feminist, her determination to succeed in a hostile, male-dominated environment eventually overshadows her desire to win back her ex-boyfriend. Through hard work and perseverance, she begins to thrive, all the while unravelling the dumb blonde stereotype, which was the exact reason Warner broke up with her in the first place. And, by the time Warner eventually comes around, Elle has recognised her self-worth and tells him to take a hike. 

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Messages like this remain just poignant and relevant today. In a society where women are still grossly underestimated, it’s important there’s media out there telling us we can be whatever we want to be if we just put our minds to it; that we don’t have to choose between being feminine and smart and that while we may be underestimated, we must never underestimate ourselves. Angela says that while she doesn’t have children, if she had a daughter, that’s exactly what she’d be teaching her.

Two decades after its release, Legally Blonde remains a firm favourite for Angela. “I still love it. I watch it with my 15-year-old niece, Polly, and she loves it too. It just goes to show that [the film’s] messages of female empowerment will never go out of date.” 

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Images: Getty/Handout, Angela McCarthy