Rudy Baylor is about to graduate from Memphis State Law School. He secures a position with a Memphis law firm, which he then loses when the firm is bought up by another, larger firm. As one of the few members of his class without a job lined up, a desperate Rudy reluctantly allows "Prince" Thomas, the owner of a sleazy bar where he works part-time, to introduce him to J. Lyman "Bruiser" Stone, a ruthless but successful ambulance chaser, who makes him an associate. To earn his fee, Rudy is required to hunt for potential clients at the local hospital and sign them up to personal injury lawsuits. He is introduced to Deck Shifflet, a less-than-ethical former insurance assessor who received a law degree but doesn't practice law, having failed to pass the bar examination six times.
Rudy signs two clients. One is his new elderly landlady, who needs a revised will drawn. The other is a poor family, Dot and Buddy Black, whom he met during a class visit to a community center. Their insurance bad faith case could be worth several million dollars in damages. With Stone's firm about to be raided by the police and the FBI, he and Deck set up their own practice and file suit on behalf of the Blacks, whose son, Donny Ray, is terminally ill with leukemia but almost certainly could have been saved with a bone marrow transplant for which his identical twin brother is a perfect match. The procedure should have been covered and paid for by their insurance company, Great Benefit Life Insurance, but the claim was instead denied.
Rudy, having just passed the bar exam, has never argued a case before a judge or jury but now finds himself up against experienced and ruthless lawyers from a large firm, headed by Leo F. Drummond. On his side, Rudy has several supporters and a sympathetic newly appointed judge. While preparing the case in the local hospital, he meets and later falls in love with Kelly Riker, a young battered wife recovering from her latest injuries inflicted by her husband Cliff.
Donny Ray dies just before the case is due to be heard. The case goes to trial and Rudy uncovers a scheme Great Benefit ran throughout 1991 to deny every insurance claim submitted, regardless of validity. Great Benefit was playing the odds that the insured would not consult an attorney. A former employee of Great Benefit testifies that the scheme generated an extra $40 million in revenue for the company. The trial ends with a plaintiff's judgment of $50.2 million.
Great Benefit quickly declares itself bankrupt, thus allowing it to avoid paying the judgment. This leads to a series of lawsuits which forces Great Benefit out of business. Ultimately, there is no payout for the grieving parents and no fee for Rudy, although Dot Black was never concerned with the settlement money, because for her helping to put the company out of business is an even greater victory. In fact, she testified that if awarded any money from Great Benefit, she would donate it to the American Leukemia Society.
During the Black trial, when Kelly is beaten again by Cliff, Rudy helps her file for divorce. While he and Kelly retrieve items from her home, Cliff arrives and threatens to kill Rudy, attacking him with a baseball bat. Rudy wrestles the bat away from Cliff and cracks his skull with it. Kelly intervenes and orders him to leave. Cliff dies from the injuries and Kelly allows herself to be charged with manslaughter to protect Rudy. Kelly spends a day in jail before Rudy gets the charges dropped but Cliff's vengeful family have made several death threats against them both. Rudy and Kelly leave the state, heading for someplace where Rudy - who has become disillusioned with the law - can let his license expire and then become a teacher, and Kelly can attend college.