Other than doctors, and possibly media workers with unreasonably large New York apartments, few professions are quite as attractive to scriptwriters as lawyers. Lawsuits provide ready-made drama, and even for shows that don’t revolve around the courtroom, dropping in a lawyer raises the stakes, or at least ensures you’ll get a really good speech.
Of course, what makes a great lawyer in real life doesn’t always amount to a great lawyer on TV. First and foremost, we want to be entertained, and sometimes hapless, incompetent lawyers who couldn’t win a case if the entire courtroom was drunk make for the best characters. Then again, sometimes we just want to watch someone open a can of legal whoopass in a fictional courtroom. So for the purposes of this list, we’ve compiled on the following pages, in no particular order, the fictional lawyers of the small screen with the most memorable characters, the ones who made an impression, whether they were onscreen for several seasons, or only a few episodes.
Thanks to our Twitter followers who told us their favorite fictional lawyers. Did we miss your favorite TV lawyer? Let us know @insidecounsel.
Perry Mason (Perry Mason)
Perry Mason wasn’t originally a TV lawyer; he had his origins in a series of novels and short stories. But it was Raymond Burr’s on-screen portrayal that truly launched a million legal careers and still endures as an exemplar of the profession more than 45 years after he left the air. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotmayor cited an on-screen conversation between Mason and District Attorney Hamilton Burger as the impetus behind her decision to become a prosecutor.
Who could blame fans of the show for their devotion? After all, thanks to his skilled questioning and flair for courtroom confrontations, Mason reportedly lost just three cases in more than a decade on the air.
Sandy Cohen (The O.C.)
Lawyers are prone to taking their work home with them, but none have perhaps gone quite as far as Sandy Cohen, that displaced Bronx lawyer who found himself wed to a millionaire’s daughter in a mansion in Orange County and took it upon himself to adopt the troubled teen from Chino he met through his work as a public defender. “Get on my level,” he might say to all other workaholic lawyers, were not his face always a mask of caring concern framed by lustrous eyebrows, the perfect surrogate father for damaged, brooding Ryan Atwood.
As the seasons wear on and the Cohen clan faces many trials, Sandy remains always the consummate family man, even as he hops from the public defender’s office to private practice to a corporation and back to being a public defender. He’s always ready with nuggets of sage wisdom and, yes, sometimes legal advice, for his biological son Seth and adopted son Ryan, who make full use of all the outlets for trouble the O.C. has to offer.
Jack McCoy (Law & Order)
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention at least one of the lawyers from the longest-running crime drama ever. And while Executive Assistant District Attorney (later turned District Attorney) “Hang ‘Em High McCoy” has been known to go rogue, operating outside the rules to achieve his ends, frequently being found in contempt of court, even at times “mocking the witness”, no one can deny his passion for finding justice. “I think that the Constitution should be used less as a shield for the guilty and more as a sword for their innocent victims,” he says.
Elsbeth Tascioni (The Good Wife)
There’s no shortage of excellent and entertaining lawyers on The Good Wife, as the attorneys of the show’s central law firm, Lockhart Gardner, frequently find themselves pitted against opposing counsel portrayed by the likes of F. Murray Abraham, Michael J. Fox and Martha Plimpton. But of these many lawyers, none matches recurring character Elsbeth Tascioni for skill or eccentricity.
Courtroom opponents often underestimate the quirky, seemingly scatterbrained litigator. But Elsbeth’s abrupt silences and frequent non sequiturs belie a brilliant legal mind that has helped to extricate many of the show’s main characters—including Will Gardner, State’s Attorney Peter Florick and political consultant Eli Gold—from their own legal scrapes.
Jeff Winger (Community)
Okay, so technically Jeff Winger is not a lawyer anymore. After his law firm discovered his bachelor’s degree was from Colombia the country, not Columbia the university, he was disbarred. Now doing time at Greendale Community College to get a real degree, Jeff becomes the reluctant leader of his quirky, dysfunctional study group and finds his gift for arguing comes in handy from time to time.
Sometimes Jeff uses his words for evil, like when he tries to convince the study group to let their psychotic former Spanish teacher, Señor Chang, join the group, just because he’s jealous of the other candidate. But more often, he conjures loopholes out of thin air to get his friends out of trouble, or gives a rousing speech that brings them all together again. Though he never loses that particular combination of ego and laziness that brought him to Greendale in the first place, the study group softens him, and more often than not, he puts them first.
Ben Matlock (Matlock)
Andy Griffith, known for enforcing the law on the streets of Mayberry, continued his pursuit of justice as crusty but lovable lawyer Ben Matlock. Despite his folksy style, Matlock never took on a case for less than $100,000, but the hefty retainer was well worth it. No lawyer since Perry Mason was as skilled at getting culprits to confess while on the stand, and Matlock’s penchant for the dramatic—equaled only by his fondness for hot dogs—keeps this popular show alive in syndication to this day.
Jackie Chiles (Seinfeld)
How do you describe Jackie Chiles? If you asked him, he might say: “Stupendous, hilarious, boisterous, outrageous!” Chiles, a thinly-veiled parody of Johnnie Cochran, was an outspoken, over-the-top attorney who represented the show’s characters in lawsuits involving everything from hot coffee burns to premature aging and distracted driving caused by a woman’s bra.
Chiles’ best legal efforts were often thwarted by frequent client Cosmo Kramer, but he still showed up in the show’s very last episode to defend the Seinfeld gang against charges of criminal indifference. A rumored spin-off featuring the character never materialized, but fortunately we still have several glorious episodes to marvel at Chiles’ legal acumen and extensive vocabulary.
Ally McBeal (Ally McBeal)
Does any real lawyer have as much time for romantic entanglements as Ally McBeal did? Perhaps not. But the girl had heart, and she had silliness, two things that portrayals of lawyers sometimes lack. It was a lovely bit of escapism to watch the pratfalls and bathroom dancing that went on at the Boston law firm of Cage & Fish. The cases Ally dealt with informed her personal life, and vice versa, reframing the age-old question of “work-life balance” as more of a mixture. And of course, she had a wild imagination, constantly concocting kooky fantasies. We all remember the dancing baby, don’t we?
Saul Goodman (Breaking Bad)
If you’re looking to become a successful meth dealer, it helps to have a good lawyer. Luckily for Breaking Bad’s teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White, he called Saul Goodman. A criminal lawyer in both senses of the word, Goodman attracts clients using the yellow pages and a slew of low-budget TV ads, but his legal representation throughout the series is first-class.
With his flashy suits, fast talking and questionable ethics, Goodman exemplifies many of the worst stereotypes of lawyers and, in doing so, brings some much-needed comic relief to an otherwise bleak show.
Ted Buckland (Scrubs)
Perhaps the least competent lawyer on this list, or that has ever been portrayed in the history of television, Ted Buckland is a sweaty, spineless, a-cappella singing sad sack who is ostensibly in charge of Sacred Heart Hospital’s legal affairs. However he is constantly cowed by chief of medicine Bob Kelso, or, really, anyone. His legal contributions consist of things like pointing out a patient’s slippers look slick after a fall only to learn they are hospital booties, or drugging himself to try to quell the fear he feels whenever an imposing malpractice attorney speaks.
Still, Ted has his moments. His confidence skyrockets whenever he’s singing with his band, the Worthless Peons. And in one glorious episode, he helps the hospital’s nurses bargain for a raise by giving them the tools to blackmail his oppressor, Kelso.
Harvey Specter (Suits)
The “best closer in New York City,” Harvey Specter subscribes to the “work hard, play hard” approach to lawyering. His particular combination of flash and substance proves effective, as he goes to almost any lengths to win cases, despite feeling no emotional attachment to his clients.
Although Specter usually doesn’t shy away from telling the truth, no matter how harsh, he tricks his law firm into hiring Mike Ross, a prodigy who passed the bar but never graduated from law school. The pair’s ensuing mentor-mentee relationship ultimately reveals Specter to be more than just a soulless corporate lawyer, although he probably wouldn’t admit it.
Denny Crane (Boston Legal)
Denny Crane is a man who knows what he likes—mostly guns, sheep and the sound of his own name. His legal record is impressive—6,043 wins to zero losses—that is, if you believe him. He’s a self-proclaimed legend in the courtroom, which he perhaps uses as an excuse to coast a little. But if a legend can’t catch a break, who can?
Underneath the carousing, though, is a touching humanity best characterized by Denny’s friendship with his colleague Alan Shore. The two lawyers have “special time” at the end of most episodes, when they share some refreshments and catch up with each other. As Denny develops Alzheimer’s, he comes to rely more on Alan, eventually marrying him in the season finale, partly so that Alan will have the authority to make difficult medical decisions for him, but mostly so he can spend the rest of his days with the person he loves best.
The lawyers of Arrested Development
Perhaps the most competent lawyer on Arrested Development was Chareth Cutestory, a fictional persona created by main character Michael Bluth to impress his on-screen paramour—actual attorney and (pathological fib-teller) Maggie Lizer. That doesn’t say much for skills of the real legal team that spent three seasons trying, and generally failing, to defend the Bluth family against charges of light treason.
Despite their on-the-job failings, however, the über-professional Wayne Jarvis and the aptly-named Bob Loblaw provided plenty of laughs for viewers. And the Bluth family’s longest-running lawyer, the hapless Barry Zuckerkorn, even had occasional flashes of inspiration, when he wasn’t too busy with his X-rated extracurricular pursuits.