Lawyers on television: The good, the bad, and the insulting

Every year I hope there will be one show about lawyers where they aren’t crackpots or kooks. Once again, a total disappointment. Photo: NBC

SAN DIEGO, December 22, 2011 ― Doctors are represented on TV by Marcus Welby. Lawyers? We get Denny Crane and Ally McBeal.

Every year I hope there will be one show about lawyers where they aren’t crackpots or kooks. The medical profession is fairly well respected on series television shows. Yes, there are shows like Scrubs, and there’s more personal drama than medicine on Gray’s Anatomy many nights. But think about it: E.R., M*A*S*H*, Marcus Welby, and even Doogie Howser. House might be a difficult personality but he is unquestionably brilliant.

Once again, in its depiction of lawyers the 2011 TV season was a total disappointment. 

Why is it OK to portray lawyers as the craziest people on TV not on a reality show? No one can match the crackpot factor of Boston Legal. Ally McBeal’s colleagues channeled singer Barry White in the unisex bathroom. Please. In the new series Harry’s Law, the Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates starts practicing criminal defense because she gets busted for smoking pot. She brandishes a gun in the office, blows an air horn to get attention at meetings, and lets her assistant sell shoes. I would be disbarred!

A 2010 Rasmussen Poll found that people rated lawyers as a profession far below doctors, nurses, teachers, small business owners, and military officers. At least we rated higher than journalists, stockbrokers, and at the bottom, members of Congress. Of course, many congressional representatives are attorneys. We’ve heard all the lawyer jokes. We get it.

So when rating the top shows about attorneys on television, I am exasperated. I have to go back to Perry Mason, a show that ran before many of you reading this were even born (1957–1966). Perry Mason changed peoples’ lives and righted wrongs. He defended the innocent and the downtrodden. He was a superhero in a suit.

But that was 45 years ago! Since then, it’s hard to find a show about the law that I can sit through.

The various Law & Order shows are fair, although they have their share of attorneys behaving badly, like bitchy alcoholic assistant DA Sonya Paxton, played by actress Christine Lahti.

Lawyers themselves rated the drama LA Law the number one legal TV show of all time in a 2009 American Bar Association poll. They didn’t ask me! The senior partner ends up in bed with his adversary who eventually gets killed falling down an elevator shaft, another attorney sees a sex therapist, and we still wonder to this day what the “Venus Butterfly” is all about.

I prefer the scrappy attorneys of The Practice, who demonstrated a lot more caring for their clients. They were smart, worked hard, and showed the real frustrations of practicing law. They had their fair share of relationship issues, but that is what popular TV shows are about.

One of the best shows about lawyers is actually about law school: The Paper Chase. The reason I rate this show highly is because at its heart, there is respect for the law and the profession. The students sincerely want to be lawyers, and they want to please their esteemed law professors, especially Professor Kingsfield, played by the intimidating John Houseman.

People sometimes ask me if shows about the legal system are realistic. Most of the shows get the basic technical details of being in court right. What these shows don’t ever depict are the real world issues that would make a more realistic TV show extremely dull. Cases don’t often get wrapped up neatly in a day in court. Most of the time, the lion’s share of the work is not done in court at all. It is done in the legal research, investigation and depositions, and negotiations far away from the courtroom. If every single lawsuit that got filed ended up in a courtroom, people would wait for years for trials to take place.

So what about live coverage of real trials, like the Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson cases, or all the trials seen on Court TV? These sensationalized cases do the biggest disservice to the legal profession. Even though these trials are real life, producers for the networks who air them carefully choose only the most lurid, scandalous, and outrageous cases to show on television. These are the mainly criminal cases that shock the conscience of the community. They don’t represent the typical criminal case.

People get their impression of the legal professional from watching these programs. What bothers me is not the disrespect for lawyers as individuals per se, but disrespect for the profession as a whole. We rely on our American legal system to insure that justice is done, that people are compensated when they are wronged, and that everyone has a chance literally to have their day in court.

Most people will experience the legal system serving as jurors. It’s not a good thing if they expect a trial to be something like they have seen on television. Lawyers do not mouth off to judges, crack jokes, sing or dance in court. It is even worse if you are the plaintiff or defendant hoping justice is done, a witness, or even the family and friends of people involved in a legal matter. How can people trust us if they think the attorneys are seeing hallucinations of dancing babies?

Myra Chack Fleischer founded Fleischer & Associates in 2001 and serves as Lead Counsel with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Fleischer & Associates on Facebook and on Twitter @LawyerMyra

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Copyright © 2011 by Fleischer & Associates, Attorneys at Law

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Myra Fleischer

Family law attorney Myra Chack Fleischer, CFLS, has been practicing law since 1997 and in 2001 founded Fleischer & Associates, Attorneys At Law in Southern California. Today, the firm focuses on divorce and other family law areas. Fleischer's expertise and expertise put her squarely among Southern California's most prominent family law attorneys. She is a much sought-after legal commentator by news media.

Fleischer & Associates is online at

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