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Television on Trialcomparing Hollywood's courtrooms to real life deliberation

Ever since 1957 when Perry Mason began its 10 year run, lawyers have 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 finale of the first season. 

Since that time, there have been many successful shows about lawyers and law firms. How does the depiction of these firms and the practice of law stack up against the real thing?

The first thing you might notice is that most lawyers on TV spend 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. Unfortunately, the average day of the average attorney is much more likely to be spent reading documents, negotiating with other attorneys or engaging in other mundane activities that are unlikely to attract a large audience. 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 normal lawyer does nothing but represent individuals who were wrongfully accused of murder.

The truth is that most people never come in contact with the legal system. If they do, their contact is brief, e.g., drawing up a will, closing on a house, etc. Consequently, they form their opinions about the practice of law from TV. For better or worse, Denny Crane and Alan Shore from Boston Legal or Ally McBeal from the show of the same name represent the image of lawyers for many people.

Here’s a run down of some of the most successful related to the practice of law that have had an impact on how people think of lawyers.

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.

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 and Order and The Practice, are the three “finest legal drama series” to have appeared on TV.
The Lawyers—1969 – 1972. Starring Joseph Campanella, James Farentino and Burl Ives, this show continued the 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 Movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Defenders, 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 Emmys.

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 actors won several Emmys 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. Matlock is another television attorney who consistently shows up in surveys as someone people would trust to represent them in court.

Law and Order (plus spin offs Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit and Trial by Jury)—1990 – present. This show, and 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 hour 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 Waterson. Noted for its realistic portrayal, tight scripts and strong acting, the series has received numerous awards and will soon be the  2nd longest-running drama series in the history of television.

Ally McBeal—1997 – 2002. More of a soap opera that happens to be 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.

The Practice—1997 – 2004. Set in Boston, this drama concerns a small firm of eight defense attorneys who are passionate about the law, their clients and the firm. Led by Bobby Donnel, who is played by Dylan McDeromtt, the lawyers tackle a variety of controversial issues in a relatively realistic portrayal of small firm life. The ensemble cast is strong and the show has received numerous awards.

Boston Legal—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 and 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.

For more information on the law related TV shows, check these Web Sites:

Picturing Justice: The Online Journal of Law and Popular Culture at http://www.usfca.edu/pj/index.html

Law in Popular Culture Collection—Tarlton Law Library—Mason & Assoc.: Small Screen Lawyers at http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/tv/tvlawyers-alpha.html

For a comprehensive look at movies and the law, you can also consult Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies by Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman.

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