The entertainment industry loves a good legal battle. Conflict, after all, is the key to most good story-telling. Since the US has an adversarial legal system, lawyer shows are always able to set up a good story filled with conflict. Legal shows are also a great way to give the audience clear good guys and bad guys. The law has a lot to recommend it as a premise for a show. However, it’s important to note that TV takes some liberties when it comes to crafting legal shows.
The first and most glaring difference between law shows and actual legal practice is the setting. Most of what lawyers do happens outside the courtroom. In fact, most responsible lawyers seek to spare their clients a trial by arriving at a plea bargain or settlement before a case gets that far. On TV the opposite seems to be true. In TV land, lawyers spend most of their time giving rousing closing arguments in courtrooms.
Television productions often don’t get the nuts and bolts of legal practice right. Courtroom proceedings are formulaic. There’s not much room for lawyers to improvise. By addressing clients who aren’t on the stand, talking directly to the jury, or talking over judges, many TV lawyers flout these rules. While those things look great on camera, in the real world, lawyers who do that lose their careers quickly.
A very fun aspect of most television shows is the lifestyle on display. The main characters in any television show tend to be better-dressed, more affluent and have more free time than viewers. This is true for most law shows, too. While it’s true that people in fields like corporate law earn lots of money, not every lawyer wears thousand-dollar suits. They don’t all drive sports cars. Plenty of lawyers earn middle-class money working in fields like public interest law.
Lawyer shows have the power to influence the way laypeople see the legal profession. The inaccuracies in lawyer shows can be fun, but they’ve also done a lot to skew public perceptions. For example, thanks to reruns of US law shows, people around the world now try to “plead the fifth,” a provision that only exists in the US, thanks to the US Constitution.