In the real world, law is a complicated and sometimes boring thing. The job isn’t always filled with the “a-ha!” moments that you see on TV, and not every case is a life or death situation. However, the history of television is long and a wide variety of different kinds of lawyers have walked onto the silver screen as a result.
As someone who works as a solicitor in Jersey, I believe the greatest lawyers in TV history are great for completely different reasons. A small number are painfully accurate portrayals of what the job is actually like, some are wildly over-the-top caricatures which, nevertheless, hit home, and most are a combination of both.
8. The West Wing’s Oliver Babish
Creating a drama about the way the White House works is hard. House of Cards depicts the President as a murdering, malicious genius hell-bent on doing whatever he can for power and depicts the environment he works in as equally ruthless. The West Wing imagines a White House filled with people who are — by and large — good and kind.
It’s hard to say what the truth is because much of what the President does is necessarily a secret. However, the joy of Oliver Babish is that he exists in a White House where the law of the United States is more powerful than the President of the United States. He’s able to talk frankly to the President about his work in a way that no other professional can. The character is respected by the President not necessarily because of what he is, but what he represents.
7. House of Cards’ Heather Dunbar
Speaking of House of Cards, it’s hard not to admire Heather Dunbar for the exact opposite reason. She does not respect the President and, equally, the President has no respect for her or the law of the United States. So strong is the animosity between her and Frank Underwood that she leaves her position as the United States Solicitor General to run for President against Underwood’s re-election campaign.
That takes guts and it also imagines a kind of super-lawyer who knows about the intricacies of politics, as well as the intricacies of law. Whether or not that lawyer exists in real life is hard to say. However, if recent events have taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible for anyone to run for President…
6. The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz
From a super-lawyer to the kind of lawyer who drinks scotch at 9:30 in the morning, doesn’t know how to spell “guilty”, and arrives in court half naked, Lionel Hutz is one the greatest fictional lawyers of all time because he’s the worst fictional lawyer of all time. His haphazard approach to his job is so bad that it’s almost admirable.
Whether it’s because he’s carrying around a briefcase full of shredded newspaper or changing his name to escape from the law, Hutz’s cartoonish terribleness makes us real lawyers look that much better. When Hutz’s voice actor, Phillip Hartman, passed away, the show retired Hutz’s character out of respect. Just as fans will miss Hartman, they will miss his portrayal of the goofball Lionel Hutz.
5. Ally McBeal’s Ally McBeal
If Lionel Hutz is likeable for being a failure, Ally McBeal is likeable for being a success. She’s a competent lawyer, but most of the show focuses on her personal life and how she manages it.
However, McBeal’s character divided people at the time. For some, she is a “post-feminist” icon who is an all-round nice person. For others, she is too perfect. Every character needs a flaw, but McBeal bucked that trend. Some loved her for that, and some hated her for it.
4. The Practice and Boston Legal’s Alan Shore
Like McBeal, Shore is near-perfect. Unlike McBeal, he knows this and acts extremely arrogantly as a result. Beneath all his bravado, however, is a kernel of truth: sometimes, great lawyers are bad people.
He does have something of a moral code, though. It’s tough to figure it out, and it’s even tougher to figure out who’s side he’s on as a result, but doing so is often the appeal of the show.
3. Perry Mason’s Perry Mason
The ultimate “perfect” lawyer, Mason’s character is even less complicated than McBeal’s or Shore’s. Back when TV was black and white, characters like Mason solved black and white cases. In those cases, there are good guys, bad guys, right answers, and wrong answers. Mason is the good guy and he always has the right answers.
The show always featured a jury, but it was never needed. Mason would get a case, investigate it, the trial would start and then — at the last possible moment — there would be some eureka moment or some surprise piece of evidence that Mason would reveal. The bad guy would confess and the credits would roll.
It is a simpler kind of television and, while some argue that it’s a bit too simple, one lawyer cited Perry Mason’s character in a trial as the reason they started a legal career.
2. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Saul Goodman
If Perry Mason’s world was black and white, Saul Goodman’s is a million different shades of grey. In Breaking Bad, we are introduced to a conniving lawyer who is willing to help Walter White and Jesse Pinkman launder money and keep their multi-million dollar meth business on track. The whole show is a moral conundrum and Saul’s despicable, yet likeable character doesn’t make things any easier to understand.
In Better Call Saul, we are then shown how Saul became the lawyer of the criminal underworld. Here, we are presented with more reasons to sympathise with a character who — in most other shows — would be labelled a criminal.
1. The Wire’s Rhonda Pearlman
It’s only fitting that the greatest television show of all time would contain the greatest lawyer in television history. In Rhonda’s world, the law is not glamorous or even particularly fast-paced. We are shown paperwork — lots of paperwork — in a television show which has long been praised for its fierce dedication to accuracy.
Pearlman’s character is complex and her goals are, too. We see that she’s eager to advance her career, but she’s dragged in different directions because of different loyalties. In a rare, rare moment for the show, her character is given a happy ending as she gets to become a judge in the dying moments of the final episode.
About the author
Natalie Jenner is the Head of Family Law and Probate Law at Parslows. She specialises in divorce, prenuptial agreements, child care arrangements, inheritance, wills, and other legal matters relating to families and estates.