Legal Eagles Weigh In on TV Lawyers

Say, what do you call 20 TV-watching lawyers smashed flat and stuck together with glue? No, not a start a book.

It seems attorneys at law have watched Ally McBeal, Law & Order, The Paper Chase, L.A. Law, Murder One and other courtroom fare along with the rest of us. And in Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative (Carolina Academic Press), a collection of essays edited by Nova Southeastern University law professors Robert Jarvis and Paul Joseph, a group of them make the case that lawyers on the tube are portrayed accurately, inaccurately and pretty much all over the map. (What, you expected a consensus? They're lawyers.)

"When people are asked to name the lawyer that they most admire, they frequently cite Ben Matlock," writes Ronald Rotunda, a professor of law at the University of Illinois, of the folksy courtroom ace played by Andy Griffith. "Many people apparently think that Matlock is a real person. And because Matlock fights for justice, many of the people who watch Matlock think more highly of lawyers. Yet despite having Ben Matlock among their numbers, lawyers will never win popularity contests. Even television does not have that much power."

TV can't make lawyers look good all the time, but the writers certainly take it to task for making them look bad. Jarvis has seen Ally and he isn't impressed. "Despite being hailed as 'sophisticated' and 'distinctive,' the show actually represents a throwback to such earlier series as Bachelor Father, Hazel and Green Acres," he writes. "Like [Bachelor Father's] Bentley Gregg, Ally is unmarried (but looking) and has a muddled personal life, in large part because of the reappearance of someone from her recent past; like [Hazel's] George Baxter, Ally is professionally accomplished except when the storyline demands otherwise; like [Green Acres'] Oliver Douglas, Ally is a Harvard Law School graduate who finds herself in surreal situations which serve to remind viewers of her various struggles. And like all three, Ally's crises often seem contrived and trivial."

Rotunda sums up the meeting of TV and public opinion neatly, if on a dismal note. "It is hardly surprising that lawyers would like to be more well-liked," he writes. "So too would car mechanics, tax collectors, undertakers and politicians. There is one important difference, however, between lawyers and other professionals. We will never be widely loved as long as we are really doing our jobs. Our quest for universal popularity is therefore as futile as the quest for the holy grail." Michael Peck