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Prime-Time Practitioners America’s Favorite Television Lawyers

David Ray Papke

Summary

  • Follow the evolution of lawyer portrayals on television, the various facets of legal practice, and the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys.
  • It celebrates the influence of TV lawyers on viewers' perceptions and understanding of the legal profession, showcasing how these portrayals can provoke self-awareness and insights into the legal field.
Prime-Time Practitioners America’s Favorite Television Lawyers
istockphoto.com/Pituk Loonhong

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You may have read my Experience article in which I explored some of my favorite lawyer characters in American literature or my follow-up article on additional fictional lawyers admired by two dozen literature lovers.

I’m back with a similar list of my favorite television lawyers chosen from the literally hundreds of lawyers who’ve been featured on American TV since the start of network TV in the late 1940s. Watching these lawyers can be a special treat for men and women with law degrees because, among other things, it’s fun to compare what TV lawyers do with the way we practice law in our own offices. Yet in the end, neither the appeal nor the importance of TV lawyers depends on how well they match up with the real-life bar.

I’ve organized my favorites into three categories: solo practitioners, members of law firms, and prosecutors. Of course, overlap exists, but these three types dominated in three eras of TV history.

The Perry Mason Era

My list begins with—who else could it be?—the indefatigable Perry Mason. Based on a character in the novels of lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner and played by Raymond Burr, Mason appeared in 271 episodes on CBS between 1957 and 1968. He was always devoted to his clients, assuming they passed an initial sniff test, and extraordinarily adept at both detective work and courtroom maneuvering. It didn’t hurt, of course, that all his clients were innocent.

It might be tempting to cast Mason as one of a kind, but starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the ’60s and ’70s, the Mason character inspired many similar TV practitioners. I found it easy to dream of being a lawyer when the likes of Sam Benedict, Temple Houston, Abraham Lincoln Jones, Clinton Judd, Owen Marshall, and Tony Petrocelli graced the small screen.

Winner of no fewer than 13 Emmys, The Defenders, on CBS from 1961-1965, was the most critically acclaimed lawyer show from the era. It featured the father-and-son combination of Lawrence and Kenneth Preston. The Prestons were fonder of morally and politically charged cases than Mason and the others. While always committed and compassionate, the Prestons sometimes even lost.

In general, TV lawyers of this era practiced on their own or in small partnerships, specialized in criminal defense work, and excelled in the courtroom. Much like the fearless aviators, champion athletes, and rugged cowboys who’d been mainstays in the movies, these lawyers embodied a robust individualism and a determination to right wrongs. In a sometimes-overlooked side treat, they often showed up the police and prosecutors while exonerating their clients. In this way as well as others, these television lawyers were tribunes for the little guy.

Ben Matlock, played by Andy Griffith in the series Matlock, which ran on NBC from 1986-1992 and then on ABC from 1992-1995, was a similar TV lawyer. But even though he was renowned for his courtroom skills and immensely popular among viewers, Matlock was a bit of a dinosaur. By the 1980s, lawyer programming was changing. As charming as the acting of Andy Griffith always was, Matlock would soon be overshadowed by another type of lawyer hero.

The Law Firm Enters Prime Time

The first important group of law-firm lawyers worked at the fictional law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak and pranced across the small screen in weekly episodes of L.A. Law on NBC from 1981-1987. I was teaching during this stretch at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and I recall that viewing weekly episodes of the show was virtually mandatory if I hoped to join the conversation in the mail room the next morning.

Like Perry Mason and his progeny, most of the lawyers in L.A. Law were skilled litigators, and each episode saw at least one of them litigating a case in the courtroom. In addition, these featured lawyers had biographical arcs that carried from episode to episode. Questions about relationships and the contemplation of moral issues often overshadowed the cases themselves.

While Perry Mason and almost all the early television lawyers were White males, the law-firm lawyers displayed a welcome diversity. While watching L.A. Law, I personally found that Blair Underwood’s Jonathan Rollins and Susan Dey’s Grace Van Owen never failed to delight. These characters were important reminders that lawyers need not be only White men.

But I’ll confess that my favorite lawyer on the show was a man of slippery conduct: Corbin Bernsen’s Arnie Becker. A womanizer who at least realized his conduct made him despicable and also an inveterate circumventor of the Code of Professional Responsibility, Becker became more respectable but less interesting as L.A. Law ran its bumpy course.

After L.A. Law won seven Emmys during just its first two years, it became inevitable that other law-firm lawyer shows would appear. Three in particular, all on Fox and all set in Boston, attracted large numbers of viewers and won major TV awards: Ally McBeal from 1997-2002, The Practice from 1997-2004, and Boston Legal from 2004-2008. These shows served up serious drama, provoked hearty laughter, and suggested the thorny problems the practicing lawyer might encounter.

Fish & Gage was the law firm in Ally McBeal. The unisex bathroom and remote toilet bowl flusher set something of the tone for the place. The romances and personal affairs of the firm’s lawyers frequently overwhelmed their legal work, and that was certainly true for McBeal herself, played with ceaseless wackiness by Calista Flockhart. With her biological clock ticking more and more audibly, McBeal began encountering dancing babies in nooks and crannies of her consciousness.

The Practice struck a more serious tone and in fact won the Emmy for a drama series in both 1998 and 1999. The show’s Robert Donnell & Associates specialized in criminal defense work and was headed by Bobby Donnell, played by the outrageously photogenic Dylan McDermott. Thoughtful almost to a fault, Donnell was constantly haunted by the ethical problems that surfaced in his practice. In the end, these problems led him to leave the profession.

In reality, salary squabbles involving Fox and the actors in The Practice brought the series to an end. But never fear, Boston Legal was a timely spinoff. Its workplace setting was the firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. The firm included wily partner Shirley Schmidt, played by Candice Bergen; ethically challenged Alan Shore, played by James Spader; and Denny Crane, played by William Shatner, the former commander of the spaceship Enterprise.

Crane claimed never to have lost a case, and on more than one occasion, he actually shot a disagreeable client. When Crane smiled, extended his hand, and proudly announced, “My name is Denny Crane,” people sat up and listened.

The DA Takes Center Stage

While television’s law-firm lawyers were legion and often delightful, it was a lawyer from the criminal side of things who became America’s most recognized TV lawyer as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. To wit: the prosecutor Jack McCoy, played by Sam Waterston in NBC’s Law & Order from 1990-2010.

This legendary series ranked briefly as the longest-running live-action scripted prime-time series in the history of American TV. It was only to be surpassed by one of its own spinoffs also on NBC, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which began in 1999 and continues today.

A product of an era in which Americans worried more and more about crime, Law & Order portrayed detectives investigating a crime in the first half hour and assistant district attorneys prosecuting a defendant in the second. I thought originally that the series might better be named Order & Law, with the detectives maintaining social order and the prosecutors seeking justice under law. I then realized the title pointed more generally to what the TV criminal justice system was supposed to deliver.

McCoy toiled away as an ADA for 12 seasons before deservedly being appointed and then elected DA. While at first appearing proper and mild-mannered, McCoy was in reality stubborn and even ruthless. With good reason, he sometimes referred to himself as a junkyard dog.

At the end of some episodes, McCoy was befuddled by and disappointed with the results of a prosecution. But regardless of how a case might come out, viewers always saw the cases through the eyes of a prosecutor hunting for and then establishing guilt. We pulled for the prosecutor to prevail. Previously, TV lawyers stretching from Mason to Donnell were determined to prove their clients were innocent.

Today’s TV Lawyers

Viewers can still find these three types of small-screen lawyers, and these lawyers have in fact proliferated. However, since TV lawyers are now found largely on various cable channels and streaming services, it’s less likely viewers will become attached to one lawyer as they did with Mason or McCoy.

Solo practitioners are represented by Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, which began on AMC in 2015 and ended this year. McGill’s scams are larger than his quests for justice, and the overall story arc in this prequel to Breaking Bad involved a lawyer’s disturbing decline into immorality and self-interest.

Amazon Prime’s Goliath, which ran from 2016 to 2021, is another contemporary show featuring a solo practitioner. Billy McBride, played by Billy Bob Thornton, prevails in most of his cases. Unfortunately, though, McBride’s chain smoking and bourbon guzzling point to the existential crisis he lugs around in his figurative briefcase.

Among shows portraying not the lawyer practicing on his or her own but rather in the midst of law firm bureaucracy and hierarchy are Suits on USA from 2011-2019, which has a major following. Set in a New York City corporate firm, the show’s lawyers try with some success to resolve the conflict between profit seeking and justice.

FX’s Damages, from 2007-2010, is an even darker tale of another New York City firm in which the ruthless senior lawyer, Patty Hewes played by Glenn Close, sometimes squares off against an impressionable younger lawyer and one-time mentee, Ellen Parsons played by Rose Byrne.

And don’t forget the Chicago law firm in the much-praised The Good Fight, on Paramount since 2017. It involves a firm that broke away from another law firm that had been portrayed in CBS’s The Good Wife from 2009-2016. Like Damages, The Good Fight explores relationships among powerful women.

Prosecutors also remain part of contemporary TV. The various Law & Order spinoffs include plenty of them. My personal favorite is Assistant District Attorney Dominick Carisi Jr., who worked as a detective in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit before earning his J.D. and going to work as a prosecutor. What’s more, after a 12-year hiatus, DA McCoy, still played by Waterston, made a sparkling return in the spring of 2022 for a 21st season of Law & Order on NBC.

Watching these TV lawyers, you might at first pause because of the inaccuracies in the portrayals. But my advice is to focus instead on the lawyers’ accomplishments. Lawyers can be tribunes for the little guy, transcend the squabbles in their law firms, and sort out the conflicted meanings of criminal conduct.

While designed mostly to be entertaining, the portrayals of lawyers on TV are in this sense invitations to see ourselves anew. If given the chance, TV lawyers might provoke heightened professional self-awareness and provide insights about what it means to be a member of the bar.

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