5 Ways Movies and TV Get the Legal Process Wrong

Watching legal dramas on TV, you’d think the client or even the attorney sets the pace at which the wheels of justice turn. If you’re one of those paralegals who gets irritated every time you watch a complex court case start the second the client walks into the lawyers office … and then come to its dramatic conclusion with a final verdict all in less time than it takes for one of the partners at your firm to get his bespoke suit back from the tailor – well, you’re not alone.

As it turns out, a lot of legal professionals can’t watch shows about lawyers and paralegals – the errors and absurdity of it all just makes our eyes roll too much to even keep them on the screen.

Of course, any particular case in any given movie or TV show could be prosecuted or defended in a dozen different ways depending on the preferences and talents of the particular team that landed it. Sure, it might bother you that the TV attorney chooses a strategy you don’t agree with, but that can happen in real life just as easily.

What we’re talking about here is the Hollywood version of lawyers and the legal system that are just objectively and laughably wrong.

Here’s the five worst ways that TV and movies flub their depiction of the legal process.

  1. Court Cases Move At Light Speed

    Some shows will at least attempt to give you the impression that days and weeks are passing as the heroic legal team goes through filing, discovery, trial preparation, and the trial itself before inevitably winning the verdict.

    But even that’s a blazing pace compared to the average real life modern trial. According to a 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the average time to process a federal appellate case is 14 months. With the average federal judge taking on 500-600 new cases each year, progress is agonizingly slow, even if litigants didn’t intentionally introduce trial delays as a tactic.

    Most shows also get it wrong in showing almost every case going to trial. In reality, according to the American Bar Association, less than 2 percent of federal civil cases are actually decided at trial, and more than 90 percent of criminal defendants plead out rather than going to court. TV and movie lawyers spend a lot more time arguing cases than negotiating settlements, which every paralegal knows is exactly backward.

  1. When The Gavel Falls, The Case Is Over

    At the end of the show, you can be sure that the case has been decided, the judgment pronounced, the award distributed or the perpetrator sentenced. Curtain closes, commercial comes on, and it’s time to hit the bathroom.

    In reality, there’s a lot more ambiguity in most legal proceedings that never gets covered on TV shows or films. In almost every criminal case that returns a guilty verdict, there will be an appeal. Appeals don’t get much screen time because the process isn’t sexy—no courtroom drama, just a lot of paperwork and judges sitting around thinking about technicalities.

    On the civil side, on those cases that do go to trial, the dispositions are rarely as sunny and one-sided as the average victory in the movies. TV justice is about making the audience feel good, while the real legal system is mostly about coming to an equitable disposition in a dispute. That means that the glaring headline cases of multi-million dollar rewards are a lot more rare than is seen on TV, and participants on both sides of most cases often ultimately regret pursuing legal action.

    And even when there are big awards, experienced paralegals know that often the real legal battle comes after the verdict—trying to collect can take twice as long as the original trial!

  1. Everything Is Dumbed Down

    TV shows and movies need a protagonist to focus on, which makes it almost inevitable that even the heftiest cases will end up with a single lawyer appearing to carry the entire load of the case, with a few walk-on supporting assists from nameless associates or paralegals. But in reality, big cases are fought by teams of lawyers and paralegals, sometimes hundreds of them, specializing in different aspects and working together so closely that no one individual really stands out that much in the end.

    Legal arguments made for entertainment purposes are usually more dramatic and surprising than you ever see in real life, too. A surprise last-minute witness is par for the course in the typical TV or movie trial, but real-life cases turn more on dry, carefully researched and well-supported interpretations of dreary piles of legal precedent from past cases. Building a case is more like laying bricks than engaging in witty repartee.

    Paralegals are in a better position than most to appreciate the importance of all those minor details in the average legal case. Down in the weeds with the research and paperwork, paralegals are the ones who are responsible for making sure that all the minor details are taken care of… and they’re the first to notice when a movie or TV show leaves them out.

  1. Ethics Are a Plot Point if They Appear at All

    Unless they happen to support a plot point, ethics generally get short shrift in the average movie or TV show.

    It’s not that legal professionals sit around thinking all day about ethical issues. But most lawyers are honest, explicit, and mindful of their responsibilities to both their client and to the justice system as a whole. As officers of the court, lawyers are charged with ensuring that the system works by enforcing the rules, even those that are somewhat inconvenient.

    So in real life, it’s all but unheard of for a lawyer or paralegal to directly contact a witness for the opposing side (to say nothing of having a torrid affair along the way!) without going through their counsel… no one snoops around through other people’s file cabinets when they aren’t looking – generally speaking, opposing counsel always fully and completely complies with discovery requests.

    On TV, though, just about the only time anyone mentions any sort of ethical concern is when it’s necessary to set up some sort of conflict so it can be dramatically resolved later in the show. TV and film do a poor job of reflecting the reality that most lawyers and paralegals operate with ethical considerations baked into their every action.

  1. Every Case is an Exciting Nail Biter

    For most movie lawyers and paralegals, all they have to do is show up at the office in the morning and some insanely dramatic and uber exciting case just walks in the door. Clients are practically lined up around the block, even when the firm is some fresh boutique upstart with the ink still fresh on the business cards.

    In real life, marketing and acquiring clients is a huge part of the legal business. New associates aren’t immediately put to work on the firm’s latest big murder case; they’re sent out to chamber of commerce meetings and told to milk their personal networks to start lining up new clients.

    And it’s not just associates. A 2016 Thomson Reuters survey found that attorneys at full service law firms spend nearly half their time—44 percent—on marketing and management. That’s a lot more cold-calling and a lot less amateur sleuthing than you will ever seen in any TV or movie.