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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.