As any lawyer who’s had to listen to “lawyer jokes” can tell you, the legal profession has a bit of a bad rap.
But lawyers aren’t all bad. There are plenty of heroic attorneys depicted in movies and television shows, from Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch to the ever-rotating squad of DAs on “Law and Order.”
Business Insider spoke with several lawyers, who shared their own opinions on some of the most popular legal tropes in television and movies today:
Myth: Lawyers spend a ton of time in court
When it comes to films about lawyers, we’ve seen everything from military dramas like “A Few Good Men” to romantic comedies like “Adam’s Rib.”
However, we tend to only see stories about lawyers who litigate cases. In fiction, we rarely encounter a tax lawyer or solicitors who draft wills and trusts.
“Almost everyone is a litigator or works on disputes,” says Ashima Dayal, a media and intellectual property lawyer and partner at Davis & Gilbert LLP. “The dramatic arc is always about a dispute. That lends itself to depicting litigators. What’s really exciting about watching someone give advice on how to create a tax shelter?”
In real life, many lawyers don’t ever argue cases in court. And even those attorneys who do work on disputes spend most of their days in the office, reading and and writing.
“I think the depiction of a young lawyer’s job, in film and television, suggests that it’s some kind of glamour job,” Dayal told Business Insider. “It’s a very enjoyable job, but there’s a tremendous amount of drudgery. And you work through that drudgery. But there is a tremendous amount of drudgery.”
Myth: Anything goes in the courtroom
Sometimes, courtroom dramas play fast and loose with actual courtroom procedure.
Lawyer and crisis communicator Jamie Wright singles out “The Devil’s Advocate” as one particularly egregious example.
“I love Keanu Reeves, but the depiction of him cross-examining the child on the witness stand accusing the teacher of molestation was nonsensical,” she told Business Insider via email.
She says that it’s easy to botch the portrayal of a cross examination.
“In a lot of the shows, the prosecutor asks questions that are badgering and harassing and the opposing lawyer never says anything,” she told Business Insider. “This would not happen in real life. In real life the opposing counsel would object and accuse the prosecutor of harassing the witness and the judge would instruct the jury to disregard some of the harassing questions and answers.”
Myth: Lawyers are all brash
If your only exposure to lawyers was through popular fiction, you’d be forgiven for thinking all lawyers are naturally bold and ready to argue at all times.
“I assumed that all lawyers were assertive go-getters,” Wright says. “I assumed that people who went to law school were individuals who freely spoke their mind and advocated for change. I was surprised by the uncanny amount of lawyers who just wanted to ‘go along to get along’ and never really stood up for themselves or anyone else.”
Dayal says that, while some attorneys are “performers at heart,” there’s a diversity of personality types amongst lawyers (as there are in any profession).
“I will say that the people I think are the best lawyers are thoughtful, fairly quiet, talk less, and listen more,” Dayal says. “That’s not what you see. You don’t see talking less and listening more. You certainly don’t see quiet and thoughtful. You see bombastic and swagger.”
That being said, she agrees that many lawyers aren’t good at backing down in an argument.
“You really don’t want to get in a debate with a lawyer,” Dayal says.