Reminiscing: TV’s Top Lawyers

There is no question that we love TV shows that tell stories about crime, courts and lawyers. In every decade over the past fifty years, shows that featured lawyers have rated high in the Nielsen rankings.

Here’s a few of my old favorites:

From 1957 to 1966 Perry Mason represented the ideals of the consummate barrister. He was whip smart, but never cocky, calm and deliberate, kind and gracious and ever the perfect gentleman. He also never lost a case because when it came down to the wire, a witness walked into the court room who revealed a spectacular truth that completely exonerated his client and often identified the real criminal. Even today, those startling court scenes as portrayed in the show are called “Perry Mason moments” and of course, they never happen in real life.

This show ran on the BBC from 1978 to 1992. Rumpole was an aging barrister who took almost every case that came his way, very often representing ne’er-do -wells who were as guilty as sin. His motto was that every person deserved a defence; he rarely plead a client guilty and he never submitted to a plea deal.

Rumpole referred to himself as “an old Bailey hack” referring to the venerable criminal court in London England. While his family tried to persuade him that at his age he should move on to more dignified work such as a Queen’s Counsel or Circuit Judge, Rumpole referred to those people as “Queer Customers” and “Circus Judges”.

Rumpole was a crusty barrister with a fondness for cigars and more often than not arrived in court with cigar ash trailing down his court gown with his barrister’s wig askew.
A charming part of the story line was Rumpole’s wife who was a lot smarter than he was. Rumpole referred to her as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”. A classic British television series written by John Mortimer, an English lawyer.

This American courtroom drama aired between 1961 and 1965. Actors E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played a father and son defence team. Unlike Perry Mason and Rumpole, these lawyers did not win all their cases as they tackled social issues such as neo-Nazi’s, conscientious objectors, pornography, atheism, mercy killing, the Hollywood Black List, and capital punishment, to name a few.

A 1962 episode centered on The Defenders defence of an abortionist. Three of the show’s premier sponsors refused to run their commercials during this episode. The show won thirteen Emmy Awards including three in a row for “Outstanding Drama Series”.
Tell me, who are your favorite TV lawyers?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang


4 thoughts on “Reminiscing: TV’s Top Lawyers

  1. He was incompetent and sleazy, but there has never been a more loveable TV lawyer than Lionel Hutz on the Simpsons.

  2. Your comment that lawyers have rated highly in the Neilsens for 5 decades led me to try for a list of my favourites in each decade – an interesting exercise in that it definitely drives home how many more lawyers there are from the mid-80s on, and how much more complicated they become as characters (versus virtual caricatures) over time.

    Here’s my list – with the definite caveat that I don’t like them all for the same reason (what with some of them being rather unethical or literally evil …):

    60s – Perry has no significant competition

    70s – Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (Paper Chase – 1979-83)

    80s – Rumpole, of course, but also the rise of some of the great female lawyers! My personal favourite remains Olivia Novak of Street Legal, but Grace Van Owen (L.A. Law) is an honourable mention.

    90s – The television world explodes with lawyer shows! Ben Stone, Law and Order’s first D.A., is great (’90-’94); Theodore Hoffman is sensational in the first season of Murder One (95-96); and Commander Harmon Rabb, Jr. gives the world a peak at the world of military law which is a nice change of pace (J.A.G. – 1995-2005). And Ally McBeal had her problematic side, but she inspired a lot of young women to go to law school!

    00s – While lawyers went through a bad spell of literal demonization in this decade, I still have faves:
    – Lilah Morgan and Lindsey McDonald (two associates at the truly evil law firm of Wolfram and Hart in Angel (’99-2004))
    – Cole Turner (the half demon – half human DA on Charmed who eventually turns into The Source of All Evil! (2000-2003))
    – Alan Shore and Denny Crane (Boston Legal)- because compared to the various demonic lawyers on the screen, their foibles were downright endearing
    – Romo Lampkin – relatively minor character on Battlestar Galactica, but he is a key voice for justice in the trial of Gaius Baltar, and a definite descendant of the Atticus Finch style lawyer

    10s – Kate Reed (Fairly Legal) – because it’s about time a lawyer mediates without thinking that just means being a touchy-feely negotiator without a third party present.
    – Martha Costello (Silk) – a more complex female character, although she’s still facing the same challenges as the women of L.A. Law decades later
    – William Garrow (Garrow’s Law) – not the most historically accurate portrayal, but fascinating nonetheless

    Thanks for the inspiration to think back!

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