Legal drama tropes that make the practice of law look more exciting than it is

Legal drama tropes that make the practice of law look more exciting than it is

Accurate portrayals of lawyers and the practice of law in movies are rare. And that’s why we love to watch them. If most films’ portrayals of the legal practice were so on point, it would just be like watching a day at the office.

Nevertheless, there are also many objectionable portrayals on film. Should you consult our Washington state law offices for your family law or personal injury cases, don’t be so shocked if all we do is sort out tons of paperwork and ensure your case is hassle- and drama-free.

A Few Good Men – Lawyer and witness having emotional outbursts

There are a few good movies with almost realistic depictions of courtroom happenings. A Few Good Men is not one of them. And we blame Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson for perpetrating one of the worst legal drama cliches ever.

Although possible, emotional outbursts in the courtroom rarely occur. Understandably, a prestige movie like this must have a show-stopping scene. However, the scene where Lt. Daniel Alastair Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) passionately argue about whether the latter “ordered the code red” bears no resemblance to real life. And that’s par for the course.

Scenes like these serve no other purpose than to win Oscars. That’s mostly because very, very few lawyers are critics and/or members of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

At a family law trial, having an emotional outburst while giving a monologue about one’s code of truth and honor is an occurrence akin to seeing a unicorn appear in the streets of Seattle.

Related reading: What Marriage Story gets right (and wrong) about divorce law

Philadelphia – Lawyer approaching the bench

We’ve all seen the movie that won Tom Hanks an Oscar for his portrayal of a gay attorney who was discriminated against by his own firm. It’s a moving story, but it’s hard not to take issues with some liberties it took. In one scene, attorney Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) approaches the bench and delivers an earnest speech about the evils of homophobia, arguably so that everyone within hearing distance would be moved.

The reason to approach the bench is to do the opposite of what Denzel did: have a brief conversation with the judge with voices toned way down. Such scenarios, however, are quite common in many movies with courtroom scenes but they rarely occur in real life.

Too many to count – Lawyers ignoring and judges not ruling repeated “objections”

Every lawyer knows not to continue speaking after the opposing counsel says “objection.” And yet so many characters in movies continue to speak, regardless. In real life, it’s bad practice and likely to do the lawyer and his client a great disservice.

On the other hand, a judge must rule every objection raised. Otherwise, it goes on court records that an objection was raised with no ruling.

Legally Blonde – Witness cracking under pressure

It’s thrilling to see the villain take the witness stand all cocky and confident, and later on, break under the pressure of the heroic lawyer’s compelling line of questioning like in the romantic comedy Legally Blonde.

In the movie’s climax, law student Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) cross-examines Chutney (Linda Cardellini) in a murder trial. After bumbling initially, Ms. Woods ultimately succeeds in getting Chutney to confess to the crime by questioning her about perm maintenance, in which Ms. Woods is deeply knowledgeable.

It’s a brilliantly dramatic, thoroughly entertaining sequence but as far-fetched as a first-year law student questioning a witness in a criminal court.

Liar, Liar – Lying is crucial to winning a case (particularly a divorce case)

Nope, it is not.

Liar, Liar is about a lawyer named Fletcher (played by Jim Carrey) cursed with the inability to lie. This creates a serious problem as he takes on a client with a reputation for being a gold-digger in a divorce case (a gold-digging ex-wife of a millionaire – also a classic trope!). She may or may not be “innocent” in the sense that she only wed her husband for money, and she stands to lose the case if Fletcher is unable to lie, especially on the day of the big trial.

The film mines comedy from Fletcher’s supposed crutch and suggests that it’s essential for lawyers to be expert liars.

Here’s a shocker: it’s entirely possible for an attorney to not lie while working on a case and to not encourage a client to fabricate facts. Encouraging clients to lie under oath is akin to asking them to commit perjury, which would be bad, bad.

The fluffy movie, however, gets some things right, such as the need to call for a continuance to delay a hearing for a day or more. Also accurate is being asked for a good cause as to the request for a continuance. What’s unrealistic is Jim Carrey’s facial contortions. Yeah, a lawyer wouldn’t be so skilled.

...And Justice For All – Lawyers acting rudely

If there’s anything studying law and, eventually, becoming a lawyer does to a person, it’s that it takes away one’s free time to binge-watch legal dramas with questionable depictions of the practice of law. That’s just as well because law students who take notes from the likes of Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, and Al Pacino would likely become terrible lawyers.

Do not emulate Al Pacino’s unhinged lawyer in ...And Justice For All in particular. Pacino et al. are fine thespians, but they tend to make lawyers look like hysterical overactors.

Good actors can be bad lawyers, but good lawyers will always be good actors. That's because we'll always act in your best interest. Call Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams for your family law or personal injury cases in Washington state.