Andrew Beckett is a senior associate at the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. He hides his homosexuality and his status as an AIDS patient from the other members of the firm. A partner in the firm notices a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. Although Beckett attributes the lesion to a racquetball injury, it indicates Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-defining condition.
Shortly thereafter, Beckett stays home from work for several days to try to find a way to hide his lesions. While at home, he finishes the paperwork for a case he has been assigned and then brings it to his office, leaving instructions for his assistants to file the paperwork the following day, which marks the end of the statute of limitations for the case. Later that morning, he receives a call asking for the paperwork, as the paper copy cannot be found and there are no copies on the computer’s hard drive. The paperwork is finally discovered in an alternate location and is filed with the court at the last possible moment. The following day, Beckett is dismissed by the firm’s partners.
Beckett believes that someone deliberately hid his paperwork to give the firm an excuse to fire him, and that the dismissal is actually as a result of his diagnosis with AIDS as well as his sexuality. He asks several attorneys to take his case, including African-American personal injury lawyer Joe Miller. The homophobic Miller appears to be worried that he could contract Beckett’s illness. After declining to take the case, Miller immediately visits his doctor to find out if he could have contracted the disease. The doctor explains that the routes of HIV infection do not include casual contact.
Unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him, Beckett is compelled to act as his own attorney. While researching a case at a law library, Miller sees Beckett at a nearby table. A librarian approaches Beckett and announces that he has found a book on AIDS discrimination for him. As others in the library begin to first stare uneasily, the librarian suggests Beckett go to a private room. Feeling discouraged by the other people’s behavior and seeing the parallels in how he himself has faced discrimination due to his race, Miller approaches Beckett, reviews the material he has gathered, and takes the case.
As the case goes before the court, the partners of the firm take the stand, each claiming that Beckett was incompetent and that he had deliberately tried to hide his condition. The defense repeatedly suggests that Beckett brought AIDS upon himself by having gay sex, and is therefore not a victim. In the course of testimony, it is revealed that the partner who had noticed Beckett’s lesion, Walter Kenton, had previously worked with a woman who had contracted AIDS after a blood transfusion and so should have recognized the lesion as relating to AIDS. According to Kenton, the woman was an innocent victim, unlike Beckett, and further testified that he did not recognize Beckett’s lesions. To prove that the lesions would have been visible, Miller asks Beckett to unbutton his shirt while on the witness stand, revealing that his lesions are indeed visible and recognizable as such. Over the course of the trial, Miller’s homophobia slowly disappears as he and Beckett bond from working together.
Beckett eventually collapses during the trial and is hospitalized. After this, another partner, Bob Seidman, who noticed Andy’s lesions confesses that he suspected Andy had AIDS but never told anyone and never gave him the opportunity to explain himself, which he regrets very much. During his hospitalization, the jury votes in Beckett’s favor, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages, totaling over $5 million. Miller visits the visibly failing Beckett in the hospital after the verdict and overcomes his fear enough to touch Beckett’s face. After the family leaves the room, Beckett tells his partner Miguel Alvarez that he is ’ready’. At the Miller home later that night, Miller and his wife are awakened by a phone call from Alvarez, who tells them that Beckett has died peacefully. A memorial is held at Beckett’s family home following the funeral, where many mourners, including Miller and his family, view home movies of Beckett as a happy child.