I’m often asked whether I keep up-to-date on any of the current legal dramas playing on TV or Netflix. Admittedly, I never watched a legal drama before entering law school, but I figured it was high time for me to watch some of these shows. I figured it would at least help me understand how the general public tends to view lawyers.
So far, I’ve watched Suits and How to Get Away With Murder. I’ve noticed there are some things that need to be addressed:
1) What area do these lawyers specialize in?
I understand that, in legal dramas (much like in every other TV show), the most important aspect is whether people will actually watch this or not. That usually means keeping the show fresh with a variety of different legal areas. However, I hope the general public realizes that this is not the typical life of a legal practitioner. Often times, a lawyer focuses on a specific area of law, and will even try to specialize in a sub-topic of that law (e.g. in personal injury law, a lawyer might choose to take on medical malpractice cases or class actions, in order to sub-specialize).
I have to say that the only TV show that I’ve seen so far that has generally stuck to this reality is How to Get Away With Murder. In that show, Viola Davis plays a self-practitioner criminal lawyer that actually does stick only to criminal law matters. Although she doesn’t seem to have a sub-speciality of any sorts, lucky for us, Criminal law tends to be exciting, if not interesting!
Suits, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care much for this notion of sub-specialty. Although I can overlook this in the interest of good television, I cannot overlook the fact that Suits may be ruining an entire generation of aspiring lawyers by making them think that “Big Law” types of settings is the only acceptable way of practice, and that all “Big Law” practices will cater to your every legal desire at heart.
2) Why is everything actually in court?
This is probably another one of those things that ruin peoples’ perceptions of lawyers. No, not every case ends up in a court, or even a tribunal (which isn’t quite as formal as court). The reason for this is quite simple: the legal system exists to resolve disputes. This means that if the opportunity to resolve a dispute exists outside of court, then the parties will be encouraged to seek out that process first before coming to actual court.
This isn’t one of those things you can just shrug off as one of TV’s quirks. This has some serious implications on how we view the legal system. People often seek lawyers out as a way to “have their day in court”, but lawyers understand the legal system differently, and this can lead to different expectations between a lawyer and their client. A client might get upset or frustrated that their lawyer hasn’t gone to court yet for them, while the lawyer is working diligently behind the scenes to resolve this dispute in the most effective way possible, and to resolve it in a way that is most favourable to their client.
So, if you’re watching any of these shows, try to find the scenes where the lawyer isn’t in court to see how they try to resolve their case. And if you’re ever in the position where you need to hire a lawyer, ask them about what they’ll be doing outside of court to resolve your legal matter!
3) Where’s all the exciting paperwork and research scenes?!
I always laugh when I see how quickly these TV characters find the “perfect case”, or make some sort of incredible revelation about facts of the case. However, I do have to give these shows credit for depicting one aspect correctly – this job is usually done by the student or first-year associate, which is usually someone who is willing to bust their ass on doing the grunt work on a case to prove their worth.
At the same time, I am thankful that TV shows skip this portion of legal life. I don’t think I would want to watch episode after episode of a poor student labouring over paperwork and case law, especially if it’s going to resemble any of my law experiences!
4) Is there a fictional Law Society that governs these lawyers?
Lawyers have a reputation as aggressive, pushy and competitive. I wouldn’t describe these characteristics as things only lawyers have – they’re very much human qualities. However, they do tend to come out more in lawyers because of the high stakes involved, whether it’s the client’s liberty or their money.
Due to this fact, lawyers are regulated by a governing body that will discipline them for unprofessional conduct. In Ontario, that governing body is called the “Law Society of Upper Canada”, which is the body that gives lawyers the license to practice law, and can revoke or suspend that license if the lawyer is behaving unprofessionally or has committed some serious misconduct (e.g. taking all the client’s money and running away to Mexico).
Thankfully, Suits has done a better job at depicting the role of governing bodies in the regulation of lawyers, even going so far as incorporating that role in some of the plot lines.
5) How do all these lawyers have time to dress impeccably and be competent?
Lawyering is tough work. It’s demanding, and it often involves putting in extra hours, whether it’s working from home or on the evenings and weekends. Despite what some TV shows might depict, it’s hard to imagine that a lawyer is dressed impeccably 100% of the time. So, while it is a minor thing, I hope that you won’t be caught off-guard if you ever run into one of us wearing a hoodie and sweatpants while trying to figure out how to tackle that upcoming motion.