Grading TV Lawyers: Ethics vs. Entertainment

I can’t say whether Perry Mason and Matlock fueled my childhood interest in becoming a lawyer, but, like many Americans, I’ve always enjoyed watching TV lawyer shows. So I tuned in to watch a new show, The Grinder, last week.

The Grinder is about two brothers, an actor (played by Rob Lowe) and a lawyer (played by Fred Savage). The actor loses his job when the eponymous lawyer TV series he stars in, The Grinder is canceled. He visits his brother while contemplating his next career move, and then has the lightning-bolt idea that he can help his real lawyer brother win cases. The actor-brother is smooth-talking, bold, and a winner. The lawyer-brother is a stutterer, careful, and boring.

The Grinder is a parody of TV lawyer shows. People are attracted to the confidence of The Grinder. Because of that, they place their confidence in him over his more sedate brother. In the pilot episode, the judge doesn’t bother to rule on the defense counsel’s valid objection that The Grinder should not be speaking on behalf of a client because he is not a lawyer. She, too, wants to be entertained.

That scene, and the pilot generally, got me thinking about the entertainment value of media portrayals of the legal profession, the general understanding about what lawyers do, and the image of lawyers in the eyes of the public. And given the popularity of lawyer shows on TV, what role does television play in shaping the image of our profession?

Types of Lawyers

According to this wholly unscientific list, at least 127 lawyer shows have premiered on U.S. television – and those are just ones with a Wikipedia page. Television shows actually portray a wide variety of lawyers and provide a window into a lot of different practice settings. Even though few people actually have personal contact with lawyers, it seems that there is a lot to learn about lawyers and the legal profession from TV shows.

In our criminal justice system, as we know from the introduction intoned at the beginning of the show Law & Order, the people “are represented by two separate and equally important groups—the police who investigate the crime and the district attorneys who prosecute it.” In the eyes of the law, crimes not only are committed against the individual victim, but against the good order of society, all “the people” of the state. The district attorneys (most notably Jack McCoy) prosecuting crimes are portrayed as being motivated by justice and having the moral imperative to put the bad guys behind bars. The defense attorneys representing the accused get short shrift on Law & Order. Instead of being depicted as defending the Constitutional rights afforded the accused, and making sure the prosecution proves the case by the rules designed to protect the innocent, defense counsel are characterized as manipulating the system to try to get the defendant “off.” Shaking off this pejorative viewpoint is a challenge for other TV defense lawyers, such as on The Wire and The Practice.

Our civil justice system is designed to allow private parties to seek damages for private wrongs. Companies sue companies; individuals sue companies, etc. The TV lawyers in civil practice are often portrayed as motivated by money. Take a look at L.A. Law, Suits, Boston Legal and The Good Wife. These lawyers may get fees on a contingency basis—only if their client wins. And more often than in real life, they represent both civil and criminal defense clients. They often take on causes through their cases and engage in antics that would not be acceptable in the real world.

Lawyers and politics are intertwined in television shows such as Scandal and The West Wing. On The West Wing, we see Oliver Babish serve as counsel to the President of the United States. This means advising the president on policy and the initiatives of the administration; the attorney does not represent the president individually. Sometimes there is a conflict between what the president wants personally and what the lawyer must do as counsel to the office of the presidency.

As viewers of the show JAG know, our military has its own laws and justice system. If members of the military violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they are prosecuted or defended by military lawyers (called Judge Advocates) in military courts. The uniforms, demeanor, and clipped speech of the judge advocates exemplify the codes of honor and straight-line thinking of the military branches.

Professional Ethics of Lawyers

We know that lawyer television shows are aired for entertainment—not as a primer on the work of lawyers or their ethics. Yet, it appears these shows have a huge impact on the image of the profession in the eyes of the public.

Yearly polls conducted by Gallup ask the public to rate the ethics and honesty of various professions. In the December 2014 poll, only 21% of the people rated the honesty and ethical standards of lawyers as very high or high. In the same poll, only 7% gave members of Congress such a rating, one percentage point below car salespeople.

From 1976, the year the poll began, the highest percent of the population ranking lawyers as having high or very high honesty or ethics was 26% (1977) and the lowest was 13% (1999). For a profession that sees itself as standing up for people’s rights, giving voice to voiceless, defending truth and freedom from chaos and disorder, these numbers are damning. A disconnect.

As further evidence of this disconnect, it seems that most people don’t think lawyers contribute very much to society either. A poll conducted by Pew Research Center rates major professions in terms of contributions to society. As of the latest poll, lawyers are dead last on the list. Only 18% of respondents say lawyers contribute a lot to society, while one-third (34%) say lawyers contribute not very much or nothing at all. Ouch.

Now back to TV lawyers. On the issue of the ethics of lawyers, the American College of Trial Lawyers conducted a public opinion poll asking how much trust and confidence people they had in the ethics of lawyers. Only 10% reported having a great deal; almost 30% reported having little or no confidence in the ethics of lawyers. Even more disturbing, 44% of the respondents said that the ethics displayed by television lawyers are better than those displayed by real lawyers! Only 15% of the respondents rated TV lawyers as having worse ethics than real world attorneys. So 85% of the people in this poll think that the ethics of lawyers portrayed on TV is similar to or better than that of real world lawyers.

Is it true? Do TV lawyers have better ethics than real lawyers? We thought it might be helpful to rate the ethics of some popular TV lawyers from the eyes of the Commission on Professionalism. Take a look at our TV lawyer infographic and let us know what you think. 85% of the public think that TV lawyers have ethics that are as good as or better than real lawyers. Are they right?

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