The Practice of Law: Where TV Gets It Wrong

Law and Order. Perry Mason. Suits. Matlock. The Good Wife. Legal dramas have been fascinating audiences for decades, with their dramatic, engrossing portrayals of lawyer’s lives both in and outside the courtroom. If you’ve ever watched any of these shows or the myriad of others like them, you’ve probably wondered how closely they align with reality, and if a life in law can truly be so exciting. 

A career in the legal field can be incredibly challenging and rewarding at the same time, although usually not so simplified as it tends to appear on your favorite TV show. With that being said, we’d like to clear up some key misconceptions to separate fact from fiction when it comes to television’s portrayal of the legal system and the lives of lawyers in general. 

  • Myth: If you have watched any legal TV show for more than a few episodes, you might be under the impression that being a lawyer equals making bank. Characters are frequently seen wearing distinctive designer brands, going to lunch at New York’s finest restaurants, driving a luxury vehicle, and returning home to their multi-level palatial loft in Manhattan’s financial district after a long day at the office. 
  • Reality: The percentage of lawyers working in the big leagues for millions of dollars a year are the minority within the field, making up only about 1% of the profession in total. The majority of lawyers work in small to mid-sized firms, making far less money and charging much lower attorney’s fees that you might think. 
  • Myth: All criminal cases go to trial. After all, TV lawyers spend most of their screen time either preparing for court or arguing at their latest trial. 
  • Reality: Less than 10% of criminal defendants’ cases ever go to trial. The quantity of civil cases that make it to trial are even less, coming in at a whopping 5%. You may be surprised to learn, that contrary to popular belief, most lawyers do not spend the majority of their time in the courtroom. In fact, many lawyers never step foot inside of a courtroom at all! 
  • Myth: On TV, lawyers defend clients in court for everything from fraud, to murder, to tax evasion. Therefore, practicing attorneys must be generalists and experts in all legal matters. 
  • Reality: As smart as they are, lawyers are not masters of every area of law. They usually pursue a individual speciality such corporate, criminal, intellectual property, or civil law. Lawyers may even specialize in a few practice areas but certainly not all. 
  • Myth: In criminal trials, lawyers not only clear their client, but always catch the bad guy along the way. If you’ve ever seen Matlock, the end of every episode usually finds him calling the real perpetrator to the witness stand to expose him or her as real the killer.  
  • Reality: The guilty party is not usually sitting at the back of the courtroom, ready to be drawn out into the open by the star litigator. While it would be nice if they did, cases rarely wrap up in a tidy little package. 
  • Myth: When the judge pronounces his ruling, the case has concluded. On TV, the lawyer and client embrace, the guilty party is led away in handcuffs, and the legal team breaks open a celebratory bottle of champagne to celebrate another 7-figure win for the firm. 
  • Reality: In criminal cases, if the defendant is pronounced guilty, his lawyers will usually start the appeal process to contest the ruling, dragging the case out for another few years. In civil cases, the story does not usually end with one nice, fat reward going to the injured party. Multi-million dollar judgements are far less common than you might think, and waiting to collect can take years longer than the trial ever did. 
  • Myth: Every day is a gripping drama of high-octane, fast-paced lawsuits waiting to unfold, where lawyers sit with their colleagues philosophizing over their next great strategy. On TV, it seems you are meeting the defendant one moment, and the next, a high-profile trial is well underway. 
  • Reality: To say that the legal system moves even at a snail’s pace in waiting for a case to go to trial is an exaggeration. Rather than wrapping up an entire case in the 60 minutes it takes to finish an episode (or a few weeks at most in TV land), in the real world, waiting for a case to go to trial can take months at best, and many times, years. Besides which, most lawyers are actually spending much of their day planted behind a screen or buried in a paperwork, drafting and reviewing documents, studying case law, taking conference calls, and meeting with clients. Tasks can be both demanding and repetitious. 
  • Myth: A law firm is a revolving doors of new clients seeking representation for their day in court. On TV, lawyers seem to be moving from one high-profile client or world-defining case to the next every episode or two. 
  • Reality: Not only do lawyers work tirelessly to settle disputes outside of court rather than at trial in the most beneficial way for their client, but they often have to do the work to actually find clients. Newer attorneys especially, may spend their days networking, hustling, and marketing to build their book of business. Big cases do not often materialize out of thin air. 
  • Myth: On TV, lawyers are a one man show, carrying the weight of an entire case on their shoulders. You may see the occasional colleague or secretary pop in for a brief chat or to drop off a legal file, but they rarely appear to be more than pinky deep in the nitty-gritty of the action. 
  • Reality: Behind every great lawyer winning mammoth cases, there is a horde of associates, paralegals, and legal secretaries working equally as hard and just as buried in paperwork, preparation, and legal research. It truly takes army pulling together to achieve the best possible outcome for a client’s case. 
  • Myth: On TV, when lawyers do have their day in court and make their case before the judge and jury, the courtroom is packed with eager onlookers hanging on to every word. The court listens with bated breath as the attorney makes his case in a succinct, profound monologue. 
  • Reality: Opening arguments, closing arguments, examinations, cross-examinations, the list goes on and often, so do they. Rarely do they rivet. The gallery is seldom packed. Judges and jury members alike have been known to nod off from time to time. 

The list goes on of course, but as you have likely gathered by now, the riveting world of primetime television’s finest legal dramas rarely mirrors the true day-to-day of the practice of law. Popular legal dramas make for excellent viewing, to be sure, but are most assuredly not a measuring stick for most lawyers’ reality. 

Written by Rachel Warren
Former legal professional turned full-time writer, Rachel Warren is a dedicated wordsmith and linguistic enthusiast, who specializes in curating legal, travel, and lifestyle blog content. When she is not writing, you might find Rachel watching a classic '40's film, reading historical fiction, or sipping wine in Tuscany.