Your favorite courtroom drama might be hugely entertaining from the opening scene to the end credits — but how realistic is it? Let’s face it. Hollywood often neglects accuracy in favor of excitement and tension. Any attorney will tell you that while appearing in court might have thrilling moments, they’re likely to be few and far between. In the real world, there’s a lot of waiting around, mountains of paperwork and more than a few boring bits. It’s definitely not like “Ally McBeal,” with dancing babies and dance routines in the unisex bathroom.
However, some courtroom dramas manage to hit the sweet spot, providing great entertainment while not straying too far from the truth. Here are the six most realistic, according to those who know the legal world inside out.
1. ‘My Cousin Vinny’
The 1992 movie classic “My Cousin Vinny,” starring Joe Pesci as the clueless but naturally talented attorney Vinny Gambino, is high on the list of the most true-to-life courtroom dramas for attorney Joseph P. McClelland, III.
“The writers consulted with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA) to craft the court dialogue,” McClelland says.
In fact, “My Cousin Vinny” is considered to be so accurate in depicting American jurisprudence that it’s shown in law schools as an instructional video. Because Vinny needs so much guidance, other characters have to explain basic legal concepts to him that would be glossed over in other films.
“Even seasoned trial lawyers can learn much from watching this film,” the Connecticut Law Tribune Editorial Board wrote.
McClelland also rates the courtroom scenes in Aaron Korsh’s TV drama “Suits” pretty high. The show first aired on USA Network in 2011. Set at a fictional law firm in New York City, it follows talented college dropout Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams), who is hired as a law associate for Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) despite never having gone to law school.
“The characters specifically dislike court because they can’t act nuts and do unethical things,” McClelland says. “When the attorney is confined to act properly, those scenes are realistic. Judges hate drama from lawyers. As a general rule of thumb, all of the boring scenes from any trial movie or TV show are realistic. Also, when your favorite, spit-fire attorney loses before a judge, that scene is authentic!”
3. ‘The Practice’
For TV viewers who found “Ally McBeal” too fluffy and fanciful, another legal TV series from the same creator (David E. Kelley) offered a more realistic option. “The Practice,” which focused on the partners and associates at a Boston law firm, ran for eight seasons on ABC from 1997 to 2004 and won the Emmy for Best Drama Series in 1998 and 1999.
“‘The Practice’ is the most realistic courtroom drama I’ve seen,” Israel Piedra, attorney at Welts, White & Fontaine, PC in Nashua, New Hampshire, says. “It shows that the practice of law is not always glamorous. The trials are obviously dramatized, but the procedure and conduct is more true-to-life than other legal dramas. And there are many more law firms are that are small and struggling to get by, like the one in ‘The Practice,’ than large white-shoe firms, like the one in ‘Suits.'”
4. ‘Boston Legal’
“The Practice” spawned the spin-off series “Boston Legal,” which ran for five seasons on ABC from 2004 to 2008. The producers hired the British writer and barrister John Mortimer, who created the UK legal series “Rumpole of the Bailey,” as a consultant for the show, and it paid off.
“The most realistic legal dramas do a good job of illustrating how law firms operate and how the law operates,” Matthew Kreitzer of Matthew Kreitzer Law Firm in Winchester, Virginia, says. “‘Boston Legal’ does a great job of showing firm dynamics and how lawyers interact with each other. It also does a good job of showing how the courtroom process works. Often, other legal dramas fail to show the reality of law firm culture, or they are too informal and ignore how the court process works.”
5. ‘Law & Order’
For many lawyers, you can’t get a more realistic legal show than “Law & Order,” which aired on NBC from 1990 to 2010. Set in New York City, each episode had a two-part format, the first focusing on the investigation of a crime (typically murder) and the apprehension of a suspect by New York City Police Department detectives, and the second on the prosecution of the defendant by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Real-life cases often inspired the plot.
“The legal system is incredibly slow,” attorney David Reischer, CEO of LegalAdvice.com, says. “The fast-paced drama that people see on most legal television shows is not the reality of the legal process. A typical court case can take a long time and the actual wheels of justice turn extremely slow. ‘Law & Order,’ with its measured pacing, portrays this very well.”
6. ‘Better Call Saul’
For attorney Alex Freeburg of Freeburg Law, LLC in Jackson, Wyoming, the first season of “Better Call Saul,” the spin-off prequel to “Breaking Bad,” perfectly captures one particular aspect of a lawyer’s life: the hustle.
“Many attorneys are solo and small firm lawyers,” Freeburg says. “We join the profession for the right reason: to help people. That means we go up against large organizations that can bury us in paperwork. Our heart and our pocketbook are in conflict. The first season of ‘Better Call Saul’ captures that conflict between an attorney’s desire to help people and the limits and realities of running a small business. It’s also wickedly funny to an attorney — there are plenty of ‘in-jokes’ for folks with legal training to appreciate.”
Freeburg’s favorite episode is the one where Jimmy hides in the bathroom of the nursing home writing a preservation letter to the nursing home to stop them from destroying records.
“If that hasn’t happened in real life, it should!”
The first season of “Better Call Saul” premiered on AMC in 2015, and a fifth season will hit screens in 2020.
Which courtroom drama is your favorite?
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