Television shows about the law are common—they range from light-hearted fares like "Drop Dead Diva" and "Ally McBeal" to deeper dramas like "Law and Order" and "How to Get Away with Murder." If there is one thing that is true across the board, though, it is this—although the shows are popular and entertaining, lawyers argue that the legal field is often misrepresented on television. Taken from a variety of lists, here are eight of the most popular legal television series, past, and present, and what they get wrong—and right.
Law and Order (all versions)
"Law and Order" does a good job of showing the connection between the police—the people who catch the criminals—and the district attorneys—the people who put the criminals in jail. However, that seems to be about all it gets right.
The show is extremely entertaining, but it is misleading in several ways. First, most criminals on "Law and Order" end up confessing to the crime in some way or another—confessions are not very common, and lawyers usually have to work with a lot less when they’re trying to get convictions to stick. It also really speeds up the criminal justice process—viewers get to see the happy ending (i.e., the conviction) at the end of an hour-long episode, but that is not realistic at all. Law is not a fast-paced field in the slightest, and it often takes years for lawyers to end up in court to either prosecute or defend their clients. As a whole, "Law and Order" show the system from start to finish, but it does so in a way that is meant to entertain viewers rather than accurately portray the legal process.
The funny thing about "Suits" is that the whole premise is based on an impossible situation—one of two main characters, Mike Ross, does not hold a law degree, yet is practicing law. Sure, he’s brilliant and takes the LSAT for fun (and for extra money), but he and his colleagues are committing a sea of ethical violations to keep the secret about his past. That is usually where lawyers draw the line with "Suits"—as entertaining as it is, there is no way that someone who doesn’t hold a law degree would be working for a BigLaw firm as an associate without having to show some credentials, not to mention passing the bar exam.
Aside from the main premise not appealing to many lawyers, the show does portray many aspects of BigLaw correctly—the late nights, the paper-pushing, and big money, among other things. It doesn’t quite convey the extent to which young associates do not get to do the exciting parts of the job (basically anything that isn’t research), but it does better than some other shows in that regard.
The Good Wife
Dramatic license is expected when it comes to television shows, but the writers take a lot of extra in "The Good Wife." The show started with a woman who had to silently stand by her husband as he admitted to cheating on her with a prostitute and now shows Alicia Florrick as a partner in her law firm—a pretty dramatic improvement.
What generally annoys lawyers who watch the show are the antics—there is rarely last-minute evidence brought forth in court, and the cases on the show are decided much faster than any case would ever be in the real world.
It should be noted, though, that "The Good Wife" has several lawyers on staff, so they do try to get the facts straight when they are writing the episodes. And the show does a very good job of portraying politics, which is often related to the law on television.
How to Get Away With Murder
If you were to ask lawyers if they would want to watch a show about law school students, it’s almost certain that they would say, “absolutely not.” The typical law school student is boring—they would spend most days in class or studying. That is not so in "How to Get Away with Murder."
In the show, a group of 1Ls (First-Year Law Students) gets a prestigious internship with Annalise Keating, a renowned defense attorney who also teaches at their fictional law school. While the cases are pretty dramatic, they at least all fall within Keating’s wheelhouse—criminal defense. The rest of the show is far-fetched. Aside from the fact that 1Ls are taking a Criminal Law 101 course (which is likely the combination of several other courses that most law students take later in their careers), they are also discussing Annalise’s current cases in class. That would never happen.
Plus, the American Bar Association (ABA) has a rule that 1Ls can’t work more than a certain number of hours each week, and these students are certainly working above the threshold. As entertaining as the show is, it seems to get more wrong than right when it comes to the law.
Drop Dead Diva
For many people—both lawyers and television watchers alike—"Drop Dead Diva" probably didn’t register much on the scale of good to bad when it comes to legal shows. However, the main character is a lawyer, and the law is integral to many of the plots.
The premise is unique—a vapid model dies on the same day as a quiet lawyer with a big heart, and the vapid model must continue living in the body of the quiet lawyer. Most of the legal plots are flimsy at best, and the dramatics can be a bit much.
The show as a whole, however, is entertaining and heartwarming, and it fairly accurately shows the politics that occur in BigLaw firms, along with the bumpy path to a potential partnership.
The show "JAG" had the unique angle of being about the lawyers of the armed forces. While creator Donald P. Bellisario (a former Marine) strived for accuracy when creating his military legal drama, some lawyers believe that the show doesn’t quite hit all the points necessary to be completely accurate in a legal sense.
One thing that the show did get right, however, was changing the way that lawyers are perceived in popular culture. Before "JAG" came around, lawyers were often portrayed as nerdy and bookish. The "JAG" lawyers, however, were more “macho” and dispelled the belief that strength was the opposite of any skills a lawyer would have.
In many ways, "Ally McBeal" was never really a legal show—it was a show about sex and love and life in the late 1990s. However, Ally was a lawyer working at a very quirky law firm, and for that reason, she makes this list. While the cases that Ally works on are largely unknown to audiences (since the show was really about her, not about her caseload), there were other parts of her character that was very well known—her wardrobe and her mostly sunny disposition, to name two.
As far as whether or not "Ally McBeal" holds up into the twenty-first century, it’s pretty easy to say that her clothing choices do not. It may not be right, but female lawyers are still told what they can and cannot wear while practicing law, and Ally’s short skirts would not make the cut.
In many ways, "LA Law" was the original legal drama that spurred young people to enter the legal field. Many lawyers list "LA Law" as their favorite legal drama that was ever on television. When it premiered in the late 1980s, "LA Law" revolutionized how lawyers were portrayed in popular culture. They were suddenly seen as people who have difficult jobs but who are also complex characters.
"LA Law" is credited with causing an unprecedented number of students to apply to law school, and even though the show glamorized some aspects of being a lawyer, it got quite a bit of it right, as well.
This is not an exhaustive list of television shows featuring lawyers as main characters, but it is a good starting point to consider what popular culture gets right and wrong when putting a legal show on television. In many cases, the characters are well developed, but the legal plotlines are simplified, glorified, and made to seem more exciting than they would be in life outside of the television. Are they entertaining? Sure—and plenty of lawyers watch each of them. They just aren’t as legally accurate as they could be, for the sake of that entertainment!