As any lawyer who’s had to listen to “lawyer jokes” can tell you, the legal profession has a bit of a bad rap.
But lawyers aren’t all bad. There are plenty of heroic attorneys depicted in movies and television shows, from Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch to the ever-rotating squad of DAs on “Law and Order.”
Business Insider spoke with several lawyers, who shared their own opinions on some of the most popular legal tropes in television and movies today:
When it comes to films about lawyers, we've seen everything from military dramas like 'A Few Good Men' to romantic comedies like 'Adam's Rib.'
However, we tend to only see stories about lawyers who litigate cases. In fiction, we rarely encounter a tax lawyer or solicitors who draft wills and trusts.
'Almost everyone is a litigator or works on disputes,' says Ashima Dayal, a media and intellectual property lawyer and partner at Davis & Gilbert LLP. 'The dramatic arc is always about a dispute. That lends itself to depicting litigators. What's really exciting about watching someone give advice on how to create a tax shelter?'
In real life, many lawyers don't ever argue cases in court. And even those attorneys who do work on disputes spend most of their days in the office, reading and and writing.
'I think the depiction of a young lawyer's job, in film and television, suggests that it's some kind of glamour job,' Dayal told Business Insider. 'It's a very enjoyable job, but there's a tremendous amount of drudgery. And you work through that drudgery. But there is a tremendous amount of drudgery.'
Sometimes, courtroom dramas play fast and loose with actual courtroom procedure.
Lawyer and crisis communicator Jamie Wright singles out 'The Devil's Advocate' as one particularly egregious example.
'I love Keanu Reeves, but the depiction of him cross-examining the child on the witness stand accusing the teacher of molestation was nonsensical,' she told Business Insider via email.
She says that it's easy to botch the portrayal of a cross examination.
'In a lot of the shows, the prosecutor asks questions that are badgering and harassing and the opposing lawyer never says anything,' she told Business Insider. 'This would not happen in real life. In real life the opposing counsel would object and accuse the prosecutor of harassing the witness and the judge would instruct the jury to disregard some of the harassing questions and answers.'
If your only exposure to lawyers was through popular fiction, you'd be forgiven for thinking all lawyers are naturally bold and ready to argue at all times.
'I assumed that all lawyers were assertive go-getters,' Wright says. 'I assumed that people who went to law school were individuals who freely spoke their mind and advocated for change. I was surprised by the uncanny amount of lawyers who just wanted to 'go along to get along' and never really stood up for themselves or anyone else.'
Dayal says that, while some attorneys are 'performers at heart,' there's a diversity of personality types amongst lawyers (as there are in any profession).
'I will say that the people I think are the best lawyers are thoughtful, fairly quiet, talk less, and listen more,' Dayal says. 'That's not what you see. You don't see talking less and listening more. You certainly don't see quiet and thoughtful. You see bombastic and swagger.'
That being said, she agrees that many lawyers aren't good at backing down in an argument.
'You really don't want to get in a debate with a lawyer,' Dayal says.
Becoming a lawyer is the ticket to a fancy car, a big house, and a massive paycheck, right? Just look at Matthew McConaughey at the beginning of 'The Lincoln Lawyer.'
'It is really hard to find a job,' Dayal says. 'It is really hard to pay off your loans. It is really hard to find a job where you're acting as a lawyer. People hear you're a lawyer and suddenly you're well off and financially secure and professionally secure, and that couldn't be further from the case (for) a huge percentage of relatively recent law school graduates.'
The trope of the 'amoral attorney' makes an appearance in everything from 'Better Call Saul,' to 'How to Get Away with Murder.' There's even one in 'Jurassic Park!'
'It is the people that lawyers represent that makes them prevalent in the media (i.e. celebrity divorces, athletes and politicians charged with criminal matters, and corporations that are involved with deceiving the public, matters involving the environment, etc.),' criminal defence attorney Mitchell Kreiter said via email. 'I do not like the way they depict criminal defence attorneys as being slimy and unethical. Attorneys theoretically are supposed to be held in a higher regard to the common man as being ethical and honest.'
Wright agrees that this is her 'biggest pet peeve' about how lawyers are portrayed on TV and in film.
'Lawyers bear the unique burden of having the ability to interpret ('manipulate') the law,' Wright says. 'I say manipulate because we are portrayed as naughty characters who use the law to advance agendas that may go against the public good. But the truth is lawyers, and specifically good ones, are able to articulate the law in a way that can advance the public good and change public policy.'
There tend to be a lot of oddball characters in the legal profession (on television, at least). The online encyclopedia TV Tropes and Idioms even has an entry called the 'Bunny Ears Lawyer,' which refers to a quirky character who's adept at their job.
Dayal says that this trope is actually pretty true-to-life.
'I've worked at a number of firms that people have basically called 'finishing schools for nerds,'' Dayal says. 'There are a lot of weird people. Not weird in a bad way. Just in a good, independent, 'don't care what people think' kind of way.'
One of the reasons that lawyers appear so much in media is that their jobs are compelling -- and tough.
'Al Pacino's performance in the movie 'And Justice for All' seemed to accurately depict the reality of being a lawyer placed in a very inferior position,' Kreiter says. 'He was up against the power and the privileged in seeking justice for his client and the movie seemed like it bordered on reality.'
'Lawyers are really dedicated to the service of their clients,' Dayal says. 'I think that's especially true to people in public interest.'
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