TV legal dramas, sometimes referred to as courtroom dramas, have been popular since nearly the beginning of television’s rise to prominence. In 1955, a television could be found in half of all homes in the United States. Two years later, Americans tuned in for the premiere of “Perry Mason,” a series following the work of a fictional criminal defense lawyer of the same name. The immensely successful program ran for nearly a decade, then enjoyed various revivals in the form of additional series and TV movies through the 1990s.
Smithsonian Magazine has hailed “Perry Mason” as “the birth of the courtroom procedural.” Few probably knew just how enduring that genre—or how influential that particular show—would be. Countless legal dramas have hit television screens in the decades since, and the popularity of these shows continues to climb. “Perry Mason” provided the inspiration or foundation for many modern legal dramas. But as Smithsonian Magazine stated, the program “depicted a legal system that worked only for the innocent and the wrongfully accused.” This “the system always works” approach was a noble, but certainly not accurate, depiction.
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The move toward accuracy among today’s legal dramas is connected to an increased appetite among viewers for gritty reality versus the escapist idealism that typified numerous earlier legal dramas. Contemporary courtroom dramas often pull their script ideas directly from actual—usually sensationalistic—cases, changing the participants’ names and a few other facts but generally adhering to those real-life stories.
Still, some common legal drama tropes stretch the truth, if not break it altogether. Let’s review a few of them, presented here with a fittingly dramatic flair:
“See you in court!”
Most criminal and civil cases never even go to trial. But that wouldn’t make a very interesting TV show, would it?
“Your Honor, this will change everything.”
The eleventh-hour introduction of damning (or exonerating) evidence makes for exciting television, but it rarely occurs.
“I’d like to call Jane Doe to the stand.”
You didn’t see this one coming: that surprise witness from the defendant’s past whose testimony may end up freeing them instead of sending them to the gallows. The appearance of surprise witnesses generally doesn’t happen, however, because a) attorneys have to submit a list of witnesses they plan to call to the court in advance and b) the opposing lawyers must be given the opportunity to depose any witness that may be called to the stand.
“Yes, I did it!!!”
It’s dramatic. It’s cathartic. It affirms that we knew all along who did the crime. But defendants rarely confess while on the stand. In fact, confessions seldom happen in the courtroom at all.
“Looks like another all-nighter for me.”
While ambitious legal students are often shown researching legal precedent for cases at all hours, the American Bar Association actually places limits on how many hours students can work while in law school.
For the sake of entertainment, many legal procedures and tricks we see on television are either made up or exaggerated. These shows are called “dramas,” after all. As one source put it:
Most of today’s real-life litigants are probably surprised to find that their lawyers are not private investigators, trials are buried in technical formalities, witnesses appear by deposition, and few of the players, including judges, lawyers, witnesses, and the parties, make beautiful orations or pithy asides.
What Real Lawyers Say
How do attorneys feel about the accuracy of TV legal dramas? Program names that come up as standouts include “L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “Law & Order,” and “Suits.” Some of the elements that add authenticity to these programs are:
- Judges reining in “loose cannon” attorneys and demanding strict adherence to codes of ethics and propriety.
- The legal profession being depicted as demanding work, not glamorous or exciting.
- Legal firms being shown not necessarily as big and successful, but as businesses that can struggle as any other business would.
- Legal jargon being used correctly.
- Lawyers interacting in a realistic manner.
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