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Art versus life: how well do legal dramas show the reality of the job?

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When I was the President of the Law Society in university, I had the opportunity to speak to lots of prospective law students and their parents. I was always intrigued as to their motives behind wanting to study law or even go into legal practice in future.

Some of the reasons included (not in any particular order):

1. I come from a family of lawyers.

2. My parents want me to be a lawyer.

3. I like to argue.

4. I was inspired by a movie/ TV series.

As a person with African heritage (and I suspect, this is also applicable to other cultural backgrounds), I can empathise with the second reason. Essentially, as far as career choices go, one can either be a doctor, engineer or lawyer (depending how well you do in maths!)

Of course, I'm making wild generalisations. I chose to study law for other reasons.

The third reason is all too common. If I had a pound for every time I heard “I want to be a lawyer because I like to argue”, I probably wouldn’t need that pound! I think many people have a misunderstanding of what legal practice is about and this is partly because of film portrayals. It is the fourth reason that I want to dwell on.

“Objection your honour!”. Those immortal words appear in probably every US legal drama or film. The objection is either overruled or sustained. It’s become a staple just like in every detective movie, there’s bound to be a raid preceded by the phrase “The party’s over”. If only life was like a party.

Oh, the courtroom drama! From Tom Cruise demanding the truth in A Few Good Men, provoking the now famous and much parodied lines of Jack Nicholson as the witness: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH”, to the Machiavellian advocate/law lecturer in Viola Davis’ How to Get Away With Murder, to the slick albeit shady Harvey Specter in Suits (portrayed by Gabriel Macht), we have been seduced by law’s appeal (see what I did there?)

Image result for you can't handle the truth quote

I love legal dramas as much as the next geek, but it's my solemn duty to remind us of the age-old saying ‘You are what you eat’. Sorry, I meant ‘Never believe what you see on TV’. I'm, of course, referring to legal dramas rather than the news.  

The first point of course is that advocacy is only one part of legal practice. By advocacy I'm referring to making oral arguments and witness handling such as cross examination etc.

Some areas of law notably crime, involve more advocacy than other areas. For example, chancery (real property, charities and mortgages) is more academic. Secondly, in England & Wales the barrister/solicitor distinction also means that advocacy lies mainly with barristers.

In England & Wales, advocacy is regulated by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) and there's a code of conduct which outlines how a barrister should behave. The BSB also have their version of the ten commandments, called the Core Duties. The Core Duties provide guidance on the barrister’s relationship with the court and the client; acting with integrity; their behaviour in public; the standard of work and so on.

Barristers' overriding duty is the duty to the court to ensure justice is served. Second to that is the duty to act in the client’s best interests.

The problem with legal drama on television is that it can ignore ethical principles. An extreme example would be Analise Keating, the lawyer/lecturer (How to Get Away With Murder, portrayed by Viola Davis) actively trying to cover up a murder committed by one of her students. Her ruthlessness is reminiscent of Patty Hewes in Damages, portrayed by Glenn Close (which is a worthwhile watch).

Hopefully, it will be evident that it's hardly in the best interest of a client for their lawyer to frame them for a crime they didn’t commit and then represent them in court! In this scenario, her client was her boyfriend! It's almost equivalent to robbing your friend's iPhone at night and in the morning helping them find it.

Turning now to Suits. Admittedly, it took me longer than most to jump on the Suits train. Suits is about a young college dropout with a photographic memory and a penchant for the law, charming his way to practise law (as a fraud) under the wings of the "greatest closer in New York", Harvey Specter.

Harvey Specter epitomises the slick, arrogant big shot of a lawyer that many law students want to be like. Although in reality, some are more like Louis Litt (the underrated, highly emotional, cat-loving polar opposite of Harvey).

Sadly, Harvey breaches several parts of the Core Duties. Let’s not forget Harvey’s sidekick Mike Ross, the young man who almost deceived us into believing that one can practise law without going to law school!

Suits

Far too often does Harvey's squad breach the overriding duty to the court in the pursuit of justice with their shady antics. That includes producing fake documents or tricking witnesses into confessions using blank pieces of paper (a trick also used in the BBC’s Garrow’s Law). This is also a flagrant breach of the duty to act with honesty and integrity. 

Furthermore, intimidating witnesses and blackmail are also tactics used quite often in Suits. This is a clear breach of the duty to not  behave in a way that leads to public mistrust of the profession. We've at some point heard that awful phrase "All lawyers are liars". Objection!

Finally, the last point isn’t necessarily an ethical matter, it’s a matter of law in practice and how it deviates from legal drama.

This storyline will be painfully familiar in legal dramas: the good guys are getting beaten in court and are about to lose when suddenly they produce this magical document/evidence which blows everyone’s mind and they win the case. Everyone loves the lawyer, who then wins the nobel prize. The real life actor wins best actress for her performance only to be told half-way through her acceptance speech that there's been an error.

Anyway, back to my original point. You can’t try that gig in practice because it will horribly backfire. In England & Wales, the legal system went through reforms (notably The Jackson Reforms) to ensure greater efficiency and transparency.

In other words, there's a cards on the table approach - and that means no room for surprises. We have gone past the days as seen in Garrow’s Law where a defendant would only learn about the nature of the charge on the day of trial.

In short, there’s a chasm between legal drama and legal reality. For one, legal reality is not as dramatic but nevertheless still exciting. The popularity of legal drama series is proof of the allure of law. Admittedly, a strict adherence to ethical principles wouldn’t make for good TV - but it’s important to pierce the veil in legal dramas.




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