You’ve come across all sorts of fictional lawyers. You’ve encountered them in novels by John Grisham, seen their portrayal in plays by Aaron Sorkin, witnessed their presence on popular TV dramas like Law & Order, or maybe even stepped into their shoes in video games like Ace Attorney. Each of these lawyers has their own distinct style of dress, speech, and courtroom prowess. Some embody the epitome of ethics, while others, not so much. Some are heroes, while others are villainous characters.
But what sets a fictional lawyer apart from the rest? Surprisingly, it almost always comes down to their approach to practicing law.
What Defines a Stellar Lawyer?
The legal profession has no one-size-fits-all model. The skill set required is as diverse as the cases, clients, and laws lawyers encounter every day. However, there are four essential tools that every effective lawyer hones and keeps readily available in their toolbox—whether they are writing briefs, negotiating contracts, teaching classes, or standing before a judge.
A lawyer’s first duty is to listen. Gathering information necessitates keen ears and discerning eyes. Once information is gathered, effective lawyers follow up with compelling and precise speaking and writing skills. This is the only way to engage in meaningful conversation with other parties involved.
Becoming a lawyer requires nurturing a personal passion for the law and its practice long before stepping into the field. Drive is what keeps lawyers going on those long and arduous days—whether they are law students or practicing attorneys. The legal profession can be demanding, but it’s crucial to remember why you chose this path. Additionally, maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life can reduce stress and allow for optimal focus and productivity.
It’s no coincidence that many judges have first trained as lawyers. Both roles necessitate expert judgment. Often, crucial information will be limited, so lawyers must be comfortable working with unknowns. They must possess an inquisitive nature, conducting research and risk analyses promptly. Naturally inquisitive lawyers tend to be the most successful.
Leave your ego at the door. The practice of law requires constant collaboration and negotiation. It’s not about you; it’s about considering every perspective carefully, whether you’re examining past cases or engaging with current stakeholders.
By caring for the thoughts and experiences of those around you, you gain the ability to anticipate their thoughts and feelings, allowing you to be proactive rather than reactive. This makes you a better active listener, creative thinker, and negotiator.
Lawyers in Entertainment vs. Real Life
Lawyer-centric TV shows and movies often take creative liberties for dramatic effect or comedic relief. However, no show or movie provides a perfect representation of real-life lawyering.
For starters, cases are not won or lost within an hour, and there’s no need for lawyers to pause every 15 minutes to sell cars. Additionally, lawyers on screen are often caught off guard or horrified by shocking revelations from their own witnesses. In reality, leaving something as critical as witness testimony to chance would be unthinkable. Experienced lawyers follow the adage of never asking a question they don’t already know the answer to. Witnesses rarely derail questioning by going on frantic rants, and strolling around the courtroom without permission is far from customary.
Contrary to what is often portrayed, lawyers don’t frequently shout objections without explanation. Evidence doesn’t suddenly come in at the last moment, nor does a new witness magically appear to save the day. Lawyers in TV and movies sometimes dismiss evidence as “merely circumstantial,” completely disregarding its relevance and importance. In truth, circumstantial evidence can often form the foundation of a case.
Rest assured, real-life law practice bears little resemblance to what you see on screen.
The Unforgettable Fictional Lawyers
Whether it’s their profound legal knowledge, personal struggles, or eccentric behavior, these film and TV lawyers have left a lasting impression on viewers.
1. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
Ever since his appearance in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, Atticus Finch has been revered as the quintessential Southern Lawyer and dedicated single father. He’s one of the few individuals in town who show compassion for a wrongfully accused Black man, Tom Robinson, whom he defends in court. However, Finch’s intense cross-examination of the fragile and abused Mayella Ewell proves that even the greatest fictional lawyer can sometimes go too far and forget to be empathetic.
2. Perry Mason, Perry Mason
Solving murder cases across 82 novels, 30 television movies, and 3 television series over the past 90 years, criminal defense attorney Perry Mason boasts an unmatched winning streak. While lawyers don’t “solve” cases in reality, Mason is both a brilliant attorney and a detective. He takes matters into his own hands, uncovering the “real” murderer himself. He exemplifies how protecting the innocent can lead to a more satisfying resolution than simply incarcerating the guilty.
3. Jack McCoy, Law & Order
How does one become a “living landmark”? According to the New York Landmarks Conservancy, spend 16 years playing Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy. At nearly any hour of the day or night, you can find silver-haired Sam Waterston’s stern portrayal of McCoy on your TV screen. Now, it’s important to note that McCoy isn’t exactly a paragon of a good lawyer. He withholds evidence, intimidates witnesses, and disobeys court orders. However, it’s his deeply passionate demeanor teetering on the edge of self-destruction that makes him so captivating to watch.
And that’s not all! Continue reading the article on Garrity Traina to discover the remaining seven unforgettable fictional lawyers and explore reimagining law school at St. Francis School of Law.