Since TV first hit households more than a half-century ago, legal dramas and legal comedies have been two of the most consistent and quality genres. Legal dramas have pointed out (and probably embellished) the heroic and filthy aspects of the legal system and lawyers who operate within it. Comedies have fulfilled a similar function, but often through the lens of bumbling, feckless attorneys. The list below looks at some of the most prolific television attorneys since the networks began making legal programs. Some have been great, some have been terrible, and some have been downright criminal. But all have been entertaining.
- Perry Mason, Perry Mason
Though he’s been off TV for 15 years, Perry Mason is without a doubt the greatest TV lawyer of all time. The character, created by Earl Stanley Gardner in a series of legal novels, was the Los Angeles defense attorney and hero of the self-titled CBS legal drama, which ran from 1957-1966, the longest running and most popular show ever at the time. Between 1985 and 1995, actor Raymond Burr reprised his role as Mason in 30 made-for-TV movies. During the Senate confirmation hearings for SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Senator Al Franken referred to her favorite childhood television show when he asked “What was that one case in Perry Mason where he lost?” When Sotomayor said she could not recall, Franken responded “You don’t remember that case? Didn’t the White House prepare you for that?”
- Jack McCoy, Law & Order
When Law & Order, the decades-running New York City criminal justice drama went off the air, it wasn’t because of Jack McCoy. The character, played by Sam Waterston, is just as reliable as his tenure on the show, appearing in 333 consecutive episodes, the longest record of any fictional television character. McCoy’s morality always comes first, but he will do whatever it takes to put known criminals behind bars, even if it means risking the reputation of his office. His defiance of conventions and impassioned closing arguments have cemented McCoy as the example of great modern television attorneys.
- Maurice Levy, The Wire
Levy definitely isn’t likable. He has made a career of defending drug dealers (most of whom he knows are guilty), and he seems to take a unique pleasure out of seeing even the most heinous criminals go free. But he fulfills an important role of our judicial system: guaranteeing the right of every defendant to a fair trial with skilled defense. He wins almost every time, and contrary to the criminal lawyers listed below, he does so while adhering to ethical judicial conduct.
- Clair Huxtable, The Cosby Show
To any huge fan of The Cosby Show, it’s a surprise that the creators originally intended Clair Huxtable to be a housewife. The powerhouse wife to Bill Cosby was also a partner at her law firm, and once skillfully represented her daughter against dishonest car repairs. Huxtable embodies the difficulty some mothers have navigating their personal and professional lives. In one episode, Bill senses her frustration and anxiety and takes her out for a “You’re Not a Mother Night” in the city. Huxtable was also recently crowned the winner of “The Battle of Television’s Greatest Lawyers.”
- Denny Crane, Boston Legal
You rarely get to see these great lawyers once they’ve past their primes. That’s why Denny Crane, played hilariously by William Shatner, is such a great character. Crane is the legendary founding partner of Crane, Poole, & Schmidt. He refers to himself as the best lawyer of all time and boasts an impeccable record of 6,043-0. Although Crane’s attorney skills declined considerably as he aged, the firm still uses him in the courtroom occasionally as a sign of strength and intimidation thanks to his strong reputation. Even when Crane takes the lead, he often ends up winning, due mostly to his lucky streak. Crane is way past his prime, but personifies the phrase, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”
- Barry Zuckerkorn, Arrested Development
The world’s worst lawyer. Zuckerkorn, played by Henry Winkler, represents George Sr. against charges that he defrauded investors and engaged in “light treason.” Zuckerkorn doesn’t even live up to his modest advertisements (“He’s very good”); he’s never prepared, constantly puts his dating life above his clients, and once advised George Sr. to put Lucile in charge of The Bluth Company because a court cannot find a husband and wife guilty of the same crime. (They can.) He’s definitely one of the worst TV lawyers.
- Jackie Chiles, Seinfeld
Chiles’ incompetence is no doubt partially due to the idiocy of his client: Seinfeld’s Kramer. At times, Chiles personifies the ambitious-at-all-costs attorney. In one episode, Kramer starts smoking cigars, which leave him with a hideous leathery face. When Kramer approaches Chiles for advice, he concludes “your face is my case.” Chiles is known for such quotables. When Kramer accepts an absurd settlement offer from Coffee World, he exclaims “I am outraged!” and calls the settlement “lewd, lascivious, salacious, outrageous.” The disappointment adds up, and when Kramer accepts another absurd settlement offer, Chiles calls it “the most public yet of my many humiliations.”
- Lionel Hutz, The Simpsons
What do you expect from someone whose firm is called “I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm” and located in a shopping mall? Hutz, who once represented Marge in court without wearing any pants, also tries his hand at real estate, fireplace repair, and babysitting. He loses the vast majority of his cases, but once won a case against the Flying Dutchman restaurant for cutting Homer off at the “all you can eat” buffet, calling it “the most blatant case of false advertising since The Neverending Story.”
- Dan Fielding, Night Court
Dan Fielding, played by John Larroquette, is the court’s prosecutor, who embodies just about every negative stereotype of lawyers. He’s extremely arrogant, even though he doesn’t appear to be an especially adept lawyer, and is usually depicted doing anything he can to get a woman into bed. Larroquette’s portrayal of Fielding was popular, leading the actor to multiple Emmy awards. But Fielding wasn’t lying when he said “I’ve stood next to death, and people liked him better.”
- Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad
When Jesse and Walt need some legal advice, Jesses aptly advises, “we don’t need a criminal lawyer, we need a criminal lawyer.” Saul Goodman (of late-night infomercial fame) steps way past ethical lines when he hooks the duo up with drug distributors and helps them launder illegal drug money, all on the billable hour. In one ad, Saul promises multi-million dollar law suits and asks “who can you sue?” followed by a grocery list including neighbors, family members, and your church.
- Patty Hewes, Damages
Actress Glenn Close has said she loves her character in Damages, notorious attorney Patty Hewes, because she represents “the head of her own law firm…in a male-dominated world.” Unfortunately for Hewes, that occasionally means bribing judges and manipulating evidence. Starting in season two, Hewes is under investigation by the federal government for her, well, unorthodox ways, but continues to dominate in the courtroom.
- Dean Hodes, Weeds
When the show’s protagonist Nancy Botwin decides to set up her own drug dealing operation, she pulls from her most loyal clients to assemble a multi-faceted team, including neighbor Dean Hodes, a philandering attorney who loves her product. Dean provides legal advice for Nancy’s drug empire and even, in a later season, hits the streets as a dealer. His crossing to the criminal side is not a major blow to the legal industry… when push comes to shove, Dean simply isn’t a very good lawyer in the first place.
Let us know if we missed any major characters!