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25 Best & Worst Legal TV Shows

Professors rate 25 legal TV shows — from the oldies to the newbies. Find out how the shows rated and why they were givens a Thumbs Up or a Thumbs Down.

What do you get when you show clips from Law & Order, The Defenders and L.A. Law on three different televisions in front of aclassroom? Quite frankly, you get televisions biggest and brightest legal TV shows of all time. And the entertainment is not just for the average viewer, but for law students who really get an idea what the “average” person thinks of the profession.

Pop culture is the greatest teacher in the history of the universe, says Michael Asimow, professor of law emeritus at UCLA School of Law.

“Lawyers are the most hated profession in the world today,” Asimow said. “It wasn’t always that way. This hatred of lawyers is very much reflected in pop culture. What the public thinks about lawyers is a pretty important subject for lawyers.”

Christine Corcos, associate professor of law at Louisiana State University Law Center, said she likes to use clips from TV or film and popular culture to illustrate legal issues or ideas that people have about the law.

“I like to show students what people think about law so that they know what people think about lawyers and what they are going to run up against,” said Corcos, who teaches media law, entertainment law, advanced torts and gender and the law. “For example, people that they run into might think that all criminal defense attorneys have all really evil people as clients. We
teach the presumption of innocence. But most people assume that when people are arrested, they are guilty.”

We asked seven professors, including Asimow and Corcos, to rate some old and new legal television shows by giving them a Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down. Of course everyone had there own taste in shows. Law & Order, The Defenders and L.A. Law all received seven out of seven stars. Damages followed closely with six out of seven stars. The only show to get zero stars
was Judge Joe Brown. Big surprise?

For legal shows that best represent the reality of practicing law, Corcos said she had to change up the shows over the years, because students tend to identify with shows that are new, like The Good Wife, Boston Legal or Law & Order.

“TV has a bigger impact than movies,” said Asimow, who is also the editor of “Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television.” “Television shows are repetitive. Whatever message it’s sending keeps getting pounded into people. It influences juries, lawyers, witnesses…”

And what law school applicant or student wouldn’t want to get their nose out of the books and watch a couple clips from these 25 legal television shows? Here they are in order, starting with the best:

#1        Law & Order (1990-2010) available on DVD

While L.A. Law built upon critique and character, subterfuge and comedy, Law & Order plays it straight and linear. Meticulous and well-researched plots. The structure of the program itself was a profound innovation. The core characters are compelling, and the details of the courtroom procedure are nicely presented. — Philip Meyer

The first few seasons were excellent because, as a collegeague of mine remarked, the plotline focused more on cases ripped from criminal law and criminal procedure casebooks than cases ripped from the headlines. Over all its seasons, this show accurately reflects the tensions inherent in the prosecution of criminal cases — the delicate balance between the prosecutor, the police and the politicians. — Taunya Banks

#2        The Defenders (1961-1965) not available on DVD or online

The Defenders was the most intelligent seriesfrom the late 1950s and 1960s and successfully dramatized such issues as
abortion, euthanasia and anti-Communist blacklisting. — David Papke

This is probably the finest legal drama of all time, but sadly unavailable on DVD and rarely shown on cable. Each show tackled an important social problem from a legal point of view and many were far ahead of their time. — Michael Asimow

#3        L.A. Law (1986-1994) available on DVD

L.A. Law inspired nearly all of the current lawyer shows. It was the first TV show to recognize that law is a business, practiced for profit in large firms. Great actors worked in an ensemble cast and the show had great ratings for a number of years. Fascinating stories, strong characters and excellent emphasis on ethical issues. — Michael Asimow

L.A. Law broke away from the tired primetime lawyer series that always featured a white, male solo practitioner doing criminal defense work for innocent clients, and instead portrayed a lively firm with significant degree of diversity. —David Papke

#4        Damages (2007) available on DVD

Damages is a thriller about big-ticket litigation in New York, and Glenn Close’s portrayal of Patty Hewes is superb. — David Papke

This is one of my favorite current legal shows. Nevertheless, other than a few good scenes during its first season about discovery in civil practice, the primary focus is the unethical, and sometimes illegal, activity of Patty Hewes, no one’s ideal lawyer. — Taunya Banks

 

#5        JAG (1995-2005) available on DVD

Dispelled the myth that lawyers aren’t macho. — Bob Jarvis

 

#6        Perry Mason (1957-1966) available online and on DVD

When you call someone a “Perry Mason” even years after the show left the airwaves, everyone still knows exactly what you mean. — Bob Jarvis

 

Although Perry Mason was enormously popular and influential and continues to be available on cable, all 250 shows have precisely the same story. Seen one, seen them all. Silly hackneyed view of law practice and trial practice. — Michael Asimow

#7        Murder One (1995-1997) available online and on DVD

Murder One gave a deep analysis of a single case, and in the process provided a critique of specific aspects of our criminal justice system. It was innovative, and often riveting and heartfelt. — Philip Meyer

#8        Night Court (1984-1992) available on DVD

Night Court was society in microcosm. All sorts of crazy characters come out at night, and they end up looking for law and love in a courtroom presided over by a lawyer/magician. It can’t get better than that. — Christine Corcos

#9        Paper Chase (1978-1986) available on DVD

For better or worse, it gave law schools and professors their public persona. — Bob Jarvis

 

People remember the movie of the same name, but viewers of the television series lost track of it when it left CBS after one year and moved to Showtime. Professor Kingsfield endures as the greatest pop cultural professor of all time, and to this day some law students are a little disappointed when their professors cannot match him in nastiness. — David Papke

#10      Judging Amy (1999-2005) available on DVD

It was nice to see a television version of juvenile court and a fully developed judicial character, one with a complicated family and human flaw of her own. — David Papke

 

#11      Boston Legal (2004-2008) available online and on DVD

Transforms a premise somewhat akin to Ally McBeal and spins it cleverly into a law program for another generation. Students also
find Boston Legal “wonderfully entertaining.” — Philip Meyer

Sexual harassment of female employees was commonplace and treated lightly, and the canons of legal ethics were routinely flouted to win cases at all costs. Serious issues were trivialized, as was the legal practice. — Taunya Banks

#12      Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001-) available on DVD

The series is interesting as a study of the human psyche, and both the perpetrators and the detectives give the viewer lots to think about. However, the legal themes are wimpy. — David Papke

 

#13      Law & Order: SVU (1999-) available on DVD

How many lawyers get their cases from a real-life rapper? — Bob Jarvis

 

This show is increasingly more a crime drama than a show that focuses on legal procedures. Further, we see police breaking the rules too often to achieve their idea of justice. — Taunya Banks

 

#14      Judd For The Defense (1967-1969)

The show provides a reasonable and pretty accurate portrayal of legal controversies of its era. — Taunya Banks

 

#15      Reasonable Doubts (1991-1993)

This show was a good show, but could have been better. I’m not overly pleased with shows that imply that the leads must or should have a romantic relationship. Why is that always necessary? But I very much liked the fact that it featured a lawyer with disabilities. — Christine Corcos

#16      The Practice (1997-2004) available online and on DVD

A great portrait of a bottom-feeding law firm that would take most any case to meet the payroll. Did a great job of portraying the personal life of the lawyers, which was often as unsuccessful as the lawyers were successful in court. —Michael Asimow

What I didn’t like about this show was the personal drama and the ethics of the main partner. Ellenor Frutt and Jimmy were more to my liking, but Bobby’s behavior, particularly with regard to his romance with the D.A., really bothered me. I realize that legal dramas aren’t reality, but so often they portray this kind of behavior and non-attorneys think it is reality. — Christine Corcos

#17      The Good Wife (2009-) available online and on DVD

The Good Wife herself takes and wins her share of cases, but what makes the show especially engaging is her complicated relationship with her ex and her constant battles to overcome the pain and mortification it caused her. — David Papke

#18      Petrocelli (1974-1976)

This was a well-written show with believable plots that accurately depicted what goes on in the courtroom. —Taunya Banks

 

#19      Matlock (1986-1995) available on DVD

Matlock portrays straightforward depictions of the criminal justice system with reputable lawyers. — Taunya Banks

 

#20      Shark (2006-2008) available on DVD

Very well acted picture of how an unethical prosecutor functions. There’s a lot to hate about the Shark, but the stories were always well written and acted. —Michael Asimow

 

I didn’t like the portrayal of this amoral character. The worst, most trite Hollywood-ish example of the “hired gun.” He fit in either as a defense attorney or as a prosecutor. — Christine Corcos

#21      Ally McBeal (1997-2002) availableon DVD

Ally McBeal was goofy, but downright funny. Who could forget the remote toilet flusher for the unisex bathroom or the dancing babies that haunted Ally? — David Papke

 

#22      The Defenders (2010) available online

This is actually an entertaining, amusing series. And hey, it’s Vegas, baby. — Christine Corcos

Sometimes it’s best not to revise a classic. — Bob Jarvis

#23      Eli Stone (2008-2009) available online and on DVD

Eli Stone was unfortunately short-lived, but featuring a lawyer with divinely inspired visions of the future was an intriguing twist. You could build quite a practice with that attribute. — David Papke.

I found the notion that one can only be good if one is spiritual rather shocking, and I didn’t like the underlying premise — that lawyers are “evil” if they are not “spiritual.” — Christine Corcos

#24      Judge Judy (1996-) available on DVD

Judge Judy presents a horrible image of what judges are supposed to do. Here’s a hot tip: Judges don’t belittle the litigants, don’t apply the law off the top of the heads, don’t encourage the litigants to act out, don’t mouth off about their prejudices and don’t controlthe evidence. This is reality television at its very worst. Judy’s commercial success is entirely underserved. — MichaelAsimow

#25      Judge Joe Brown (1997-) available on DVD

Judge Joe Brown takes himself too seriously. Your Honor, you are sitting in a mock courtroom with paid parties on daytime television. — David Papke

 

The Judges

*The judges below also contributed to the book “Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television,” published by the American Bar Association.

  • Bob Jarvis, professor of law at Nova Southeastern University Law Center, and the co-editor of “Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative.”
  • David Papke, professor of law at Marquette University Law School, where he teaches a range of courses and seminars relating to law and the humanities.
  • Taunya Banks, Jacob A. France Professor of Equality Jurisprudence at the University of Maryland School of Law, where she teaches and writes about law and popular culture.
  • Elayne Rapping, professor of American Studies at SUNY Buffalo, specializing in media and cultural studies.
  • Michael Asimow, professor of law emeritus at UCLA School of Law, and the editor of “Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television.”
  • Christine Corcos, associate professor of law at Louisianna State University Law Center, where she teaches media law, entertainment law, advanced torts and gender and the law.
  • Philip Meyer, professor of law at Vermont Law School, where he teaches torts, criminal law and law and popular culture.

 

This story was authored by Michelle Weyenberg and published in the January 2011 issue of The National Jurist.  Click here for the digital edition of the January 2011 issue or visit the the National Jurist website for more great content about law school.

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Coming Up Next….for law school applicants and students considering a career in sports and entertainment law, you’ll want to tune into our next podcast, when we  spotlight the sports and entertainment practice area.

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