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Working with attorneys, you’re extremely familiar with how the legal system really works. So isn’t it just that much more entertaining for you to watch a law-related television show and see how Hollywood chooses to portray lawyers and the practice of law?
And when watching one of these shows or movies, do you find yourself asking, “Where are the scenes with a dedicated paralegal working well into the night, doing must-have research before the light of day?”
Well, while most of the shows discussed below don’t include paralegals in the plots, you may find some must-view favorites.
Another question you may have is, “Why do most lawyers on TV spend such a high percentage of their time in court or preparing to go to court?” This is probably because courtrooms, by their nature, lend themselves to dramatic depiction, certainly more than the everyday practice of law in the real world.
The average day of the average paralegal is heavy on things like research, writing, and meetings. The average day of the average attorney is probably spent reading documents, negotiating with other attorneys, or engaging in other mundane activities that are unlikely to attract a large audience.
The truth is that most people never come in contact with the legal system. If they do, their contact is brief—when drawing up a will, closing on a house, etc. For better or worse, they form their opinions about the practice of law from TV.
Television attorneys are often crusaders who represent the interests of the downtrodden and challenge everything from racial injustice to the power of evil corporations and big government. Watch enough television and you would think that the typical lawyer does nothing but represent individuals who were wrongfully accused of murder.
Ever since 1957 when Perry Mason began its ten-year run, the practice of law has played a prominent role on television. It’s easy to look back at that show and laugh about the lead character who, week after week, agreed to defend a client with an open and shut case against them. He would then proceed to question witnesses on the stand until he elicited a confession from someone in the courtroom. One of the standing jokes about the series was that Hamilton Burger, the hapless DA on the show, would have either retired in shame or been forced out of office long before the end of the first season.
Since that time, there have been many successful shows about the legal profession. How does the depiction of these firms and the practice of law stack up against the real thing? Below is a rundown of just some of the series that have focused on the practice of law—a few of which have had quite an impact on the general public’s perception of legal professionals. (Please excuse us if we’ve left out one of your favorites!)
· Perry Mason (1957 – 1966)—This is the show that started it all. It was immensely popular and what it lacked in realism, it made up for in drama. Raymond Burr, who portrayed Mason, won several Emmy® awards for his acting as did other performers associated with the program. Interestingly, in recent surveys of the public, a sizable majority of respondents chose Perry Mason as the TV attorney they would most like to have represent them in a real-life trial.
· The Defenders (1961 – 1965)—This early 60s drama, featuring E. G. Marshall and Robert Reed, brought social issues to the forefront, including abortion rights, civil rights, mercy killing and others. In the opinion of Professor Michael Asimow, who has written extensively on the law and popular culture, The Defenders, along with Law & Order and The Practice, are the three “finest legal drama series” to have appeared on TV.
· The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1969 – 1972)—Starring Joseph Campanella, James Farentino and Burl Ives, this show continued the crusading spirit of The Defenders and was one of four rotating shows to be broadcast under the umbrella name of The Bold Ones. Along with The Defenders and the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Lawyers is credited with inspiring a significant number of idealistic young students in the 60s to pursue a career in law.
· Night Court (1984 – 1992)—This offbeat comedy chronicled the goings-on in a Manhattan night court. Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast, led by Harry Anderson as Judge Harold T. Stone, the show often seemed too silly to be real, but Time® magazine called it the most realistic legal program to air at the time. It went on to win many awards, including Golden Globes® and numerous Emmy awards.
· LA Law (1986 – 1994)—This was the first drama about a law firm to attain widespread popularity without depicting lawyers as crusaders. In fact, the law itself was often secondary to the personal lives of characters. It was also the first show to delve into the inner workings of a law firm, touching on issues like promotions, rain making, and inter-firm rivalries. It received an Emmy for outstanding drama series in 1989 and 1990 and individual characters won several Emmy awards for acting.
· Matlock (1986 – 1995)—In the same vein as Perry Mason, Andy Griffith played the folksy defense attorney, Ben Matlock. As with Mason, Matlock represented an inordinate number of defendants accused of murder, and he never failed to have his client found innocent. Ben Matlock is another television attorney who shows up consistently in surveys as someone people would trust to represent them in court.
· Law & Order—plus spin-offs Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Law & Order: Trial by Jury (1990 – present)—This show, along with its spin offs, marked the ascension of prosecutor-oriented programs in which the prosecutors and police are presented in a positive light. Set in New York City, the first half of the show follows the police who investigate a crime and arrest a suspect. The second half is devoted to the prosecution, which is generally led by Sam Waterston. Noted for its realistic portrayal, tight scripts and strong acting, the series has received numerous awards and the original will soon be the second longest-running drama series in the history of television.
· The Practice (1997 – 2004)—Set in Boston, this drama concerned a small firm of eight defense attorneys who were passionate about the law, their clients, and the firm. Led by Bobby Donnel, who was played by Dylan McDeromott, the lawyers tackled a variety of controversial issues in a relatively realistic portrayal of small-firm life. The ensemble cast was strong and the show received numerous awards.
· Ally McBeal (1997 – 2002)—More of a soap opera that happened to set in a law firm, Ally McBeal won an Emmy for outstanding comedy series in 1999, as well as numerous other awards for the show and individual cast members. Many lawyers were offended at the sometimes less-than-flattering portrayal of the legal profession, especially the image of woman attorneys that was presented. Regardless, there were some truly memorable moments in the series.
· Vengeance Unlimited (1998 – 1999)—A mysterious man contacted people who had been wronged and made them a hard-to-refuse offer: justice or vengeance. His price was either $1,000,000 or a favor, collectible sometime in the future, so that he could help someone else.
· The Lyon’s Den (2003)—This series was centered on John “Jack” Turner, a maverick scion from an American political dynasty. A “true believer,” Jack must reconcile his passion for the purity of law in the morally ambiguous world he inhabits.
· Boston Legal, a spin-off of The Practice (2004 – present)—If Ally McBeal started a trend of spoofing lawyers, Boston Legal has taken it to an extreme. Denny Crane, the senior partner of a Boston firm, played by William Shatner, verges on buffoonery, while Alan Shore (James Spader) is the stereotype of a sleazy attorney. It’s often good comedy, but the firm and the practice of law depicted in the show bear little resemblance to the real world.
· Shark (2006 – present)—The second row of teeth comes out in this sharp L.A. lawyer. This drama centers on the professional and personal life of Sebastian Stark, a charismatic, arrogant, cutthroat prosecutor who left his career as an ace defense attorney due to an epiphany following the outcome of one of his cases. Though he’s seeking to redeem himself, he doesn’t change his underhanded approach to winning cases just because he’s now working for the other side.
· Dirty Sexy Money (2007 to present)—Nick George reluctantly takes over his father’s job as chief counsel for the obscenely wealthy and influential Darling family after his father dies in a mysterious plane crash. Almost immediately, Nick is deeply immersed in the many legal—and illegal—needs of the various members of the Darling family, including five very troubled adult children.
· Eli Stone (premiered on January 31, 2008)—An up-and-coming, thirty-something associate at a prestigious law firm starts having visions that compel seemingly very strange behavior. It turns out that he has an inoperable brain aneurysm which causes his very realistic hallucinations. In each episode, his hallucinations drive him to take on a case that the firm otherwise would have avoided. To a great degree, we’re checking reality at the door with this one, but the cases can deal with significant real-life issues, such as custody problems faced by active military, medical malpractice, and the possible connection between vaccines and autism.
· Canterbury’s Law (premiered on March 10, 2008)—Elizabeth Canterbury is a rebellious female defense attorney who bends the law to protect the wrongfully accused. Putting her career on the line and compromising her personal life, she takes on risky and unpopular cases. She and her law-professor husband are haunted by the unresolved disappearance of their young son and struggle to distance themselves from the tragedy and put their relationship back together. Elizabeth’s work provides a stark reminder of the justice absent in their own lives.
Just a couple of places you can visit for more information:
Or you can do an Internet search by show title for a lot more detail on any particular series.
Next time around, we plan to look at portrayals of the practice of law on the big screen. After that, novels.