Whether it's the "simple country lawyer" Atticus Finch, or a fast-talking corporate suit like Harvey Specter, fictional lawyers adhere to their own legal system: Hollywood law. Most of these courtroom drama cliches function by adding shock and awe to a stuffy real-life setting. The verdict? Millions of viewers consider themselves legal experts because they watched seven seasons of The Good Wife. While many of these legal tropes are laughable to real-life attorneys, they do make for some highly entertaining legal dramas that never seem to get old. Read on for the most eye-roll-inducing cliches from the legal genre we all love.
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Surprise EvidencePhoto: Defending Jacob/Apple TV+
Courtroom surprises happen so often in film and television that they're not even surprising anymore. Whether it's a witness called to the stand to a courtroom gasp or an incriminating piece of evidence discovered at the last minute, fictional lawyers are often left speechless from a shock in court. In Defending Jacob (SPOILER ALERT!), the accused's lawyer (Cherry Jones) has little recourse when it's revealed that he essentially confessed to the crime in a story written online.
The basics of discovery stipulate that both sides must disclose all evidence and witnesses they plan to present. Thus, surprises in actual court are few and far between. In most trials, both sides have a good expectation of what the other side is going to do and say. Furthermore, switching to an unexpected angle mid-trial could easily backfire and result in something more harmful than helpful. Sadly, another case where real life is much less exciting.
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Lawyers Address The Jury Whenever They Want
While real trials follow a very strict structure, fictional trials often show lawyers addressing the jury in random monologues or diatribes about their personal life. In a famous scene in Philadelphia, Denzel Washington is asked to approach the bench and decides to give an impassioned, spur-of-the-moment speech to the jury decrying homophobia.
A moving moment in cinematic history? Yes. A thing that would actually happen? No. Lawyers can only address the jury directly during their opening and closing statements. And while there is some room for dramatic flair, lawyers can still only discuss the evidence presented in the case.
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Spontaneous Courtroom Demonstrations
If courtrooms were as theatrical in real life as they are on screen, people wouldn't even need the movies. Courtroom demonstrations are a real thing, but don't happen nearly as often as they're used in film. For instance, in To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch throws a glass at the defendant, Tom Robinson, who catches it with his left hand - definitive proof that he is a lefty, unlike the slayer, and therefore innocent!
Of course, this kind of demonstration proves nothing, so it wouldn't be admissible evidence of the defendant's left-handedness. Also, lawyers can't use the body of someone not on the witness stand in a demonstration, making it unlikely for unexpected or spontaneous demonstrations to occur.
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All The Clients Are InnocentPhoto: Perry Mason/CBS
The OG of legal dramas, Perry Mason, birthed a lot of the tropes that remain today. The titular character was especially easy to root for, as his clients were always innocent, with the real culprit proven at the last second. What a happy coincidence for him! Hollywood versions of lawyers continue to earn large sums of money while only representing innocent clients, often experiencing a heavy conscience or refusing to do their job in the rare instance their client is guilty.
First of all, most defense lawyers are not going to ask, or know, if their client committed the crime. Secondly, even if their client committed the crime, they’re still going to do the best job possible to serve them. It's their ethical duty to present the optimum defense to the jury based on the facts available. No defense lawyer can only work with clients who didn’t do it.