TV law verse reality: what working in the field is really like.
If you’ve spent hours binge-watching TV law shows like Suits and The Good Wife, then even more hours daydreaming of becoming the next Harvey Specter or Alicia Florrick, you’re not alone.
“I’ve done research into first-year law students,” says UOW senior law lecturer Dr Cassandra Sharp. “One of the findings was that students did come in with definite influences from US popular culture, they know it’s not all real, but they want to have the lifestyle and the future that is represented.”
So how accurate are these lawyered up TV shows? What’s real and what’s just for the reel?
WARNING: the video clips may contain spoilers for Suits, The Good Wife, Better Call Saul and How to Get Away with Murder.
The ethical battle within
Good ethics are an essential part of being a good lawyer and it’s one area that a lot of law shows cover quite well. Whether it’s Harvey Specter talking about not ‘fighting below the belt’ in Suits or Jimmy McGill’s constant struggle to be a ‘good lawyer’ on Better Call Saul, lawyers are in a trusted position where their ethics are going to be challenged on a regular basis. It’s something UOW Senior Law Lecturer Karina Murray stresses to all first-year students.
“Engaging in dishonest conduct is the worst thing you can do as a lawyer. In America, your primary duty is to your client, so a lawyer on Suits might be comfortable blurring the lines. In Australia, you’re an officer of the court and have an overarching responsibly to the administration of justice,” Karina says.
Here’s Jimmy McGill questioning why he made the ‘right’ choice.
The need for speed
Trying to wrap up a case in a perfectly tied bow in under an hour pushes law show writers to cheat time and show an unrealistic portrayal of the speed of justice. However, more and more shows are now spreading out a case over the whole series and going to even more detail, like How To Get Away With Murder and Better Call Saul.
“Many law shows splice it together as if no time has passed between the different elements,” Cassandra says. Karina agrees, “On these shows they send away for DNA and they have it the next day. In reality it can take weeks or months.”
From the front row theatre tickets and fast cars on Suits to an office out the back of a nail salon in Better Call Saul, popular culture does cover both ends of the lifestyle spectrum. However, the reality for most lawyers is somewhere in between.
The one thing common to all lawyers is the hard work involved. While we do see glimpses of reality as Mike pulls an all-nighter with Rachel on Suits and Chuck painstakingly pieces together shredded documents on Better Call Saul, this kind of commitment to the cause is not uncommon in the real world.
“The average lawyer spends a lot of their time researching, poring over documents, writing affidavits and billing. But I guess that wouldn’t make for thrilling viewing,” says Karina.
We can’t all have the recall of Mike Ross… or become a lawyer without a law degree.
The smoking gun
An interesting by-product of our affection for TV law shows is our desire for a smoking gun in real life.
“The reliance on DNA evidence – that smoking gun idea – is a real problem for lawyers; juries are looking for that because it’s what they see in popular culture, but often it’s not the reality,” Karina says.
Cassandra, who teaches law and popular culture as an elective, uses an episode of The Good Wife to portray this very fact to her class.
“In one episode we see a jury member question whether they can find the defendant guilty without physical evidence with one juror remarking along the lines of ‘where’s the DNA evidence?’ In a lot of cases, the technology they display for forensic analysis in these shows doesn’t even exist yet,” she says.
Pleading the 5th amendment is a favourite of US law shows. Here, The Good Wife uses it to dramatic effect.
Jack of all trades
There’s a lot that goes on in a big law firm, and if Suits and The Good Wife are to be believed, you need to be an expert in every aspect of law. In reality, we don’t have memories like Mike’s and it takes a long time to gain comprehensive knowledge of even the smallest area of law.
“While you can be an expert in a number of fields, most lawyers do specialise,” Cassandra says. “You want someone who is specialised in a specific area of law, just like you want a neurosurgeon working on your spine, not a throat specialist.”
“Often in big firms you rotate through different areas during your first year out of uni,” Karina says. “You may be in mergers and acquisitions for three months, and then move to property or trusts. That way you’re given a genuine exposure to the different areas of the practice.”
Working the big case
While it’s uncommon for a professor or lecturer to have a private law practice, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. However, the access Professor Annalise Keating gives students to a real murder case on How To Get Away With Murder is fanciful. But that’s not to say you won’t get real-world experience during your degree.
“Unfortunately for our law students they will not be hand-picked to work on a real murder case for extra credit,” Cassandra says. “What we do have is internships with law firms in Australia, overseas opportunities for in-court experience with magistrates and judges, and opportunities to work across a broad scope of relevant issues in companies that engage law professionals. UOW law students can also gain valuable experience working in Public Interest Law subject where they can work for a not-for-profit companies or something like the LUCY program, that links women law students to practitioners and judges.”
Sure, a real judge may never let Professor Annalise Keating get away with this in a courtroom, but where would the drama be in that?
Is law for you?
So if the life of a lawyer isn’t as action-packed as they make out on TV, why do people choose it as a career path?
“People want to help people,” Karina says. “When you become a lawyer you genuinely get to help people – whether that’s helping someone get out of a violent situation, or someone who’s stressed about their commercial interests and helping them solve that problem. It’s also the case that many people who study law don’t want to practise as a lawyer, and that’s fine too. A law degree can give you the knowledge and skills to excel in a range of career options, such as those in corporate governance, journalism and policy advising to name a few.”
“That’s one thing they do get right in these shows,” Cassandra adds. “Being a lawyer is about problem solving and piecing things together. I think that appeals to a lot of people, too.”
Or maybe – like they say in the 1997 classic Aussie movie The Castle – it’s just comes down to “the vibe of the thing”.