Lawyers on the Old Screens

Finding inspiration in the movies and television


Lawyers on the Old Screens

For over a century, lawyers have appeared in both the movies and on television. Audiences have been captivated by the administration of justice, the prosecution of crime and the legal profession as a whole.

Early on, shows dealing with lawyers portrayed us in a positive light, both as decent people and competent professionals. As the years pass by, we have seen lawyers acting self-indulgently and sometimes unethically.

A great fictional lawyer can inspire future lawyers and remind real-world lawyers why they do what they do.

There are few more iconic on-screen lawyers than Atticus Finch defending someone in a hostile environment because it is the right thing to do. Harper Lee’s lawyer protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird may be as one academic described: “the dream that young lawyers hope to achieve and that old lawyers regret having lost.”

When it comes to titans of television lawyers, Perry Mason is certainly one of them. Played by Raymond Burr, a native of New Westminster. Mason was a brilliant and dedicated defence lawyer tasked with taking on the most impossible of cases.

He was assisted by his secretary Della Street, played by Barbara Hale, and his private investigator Paul Drake, played by William Hopper. With the help of his two sidekicks, Mason didn’t just defend his clients, he used a variety of ingenious ideas to shape the law and save his clients from wrongful imprisonment.

For over a century, women have been appearing as lawyers in the movies. The Reckoning Day is perhaps the earliest film featuring a female lawyer. It was produced by the Triangle Film Corporation in 1918 and introduced viewers to a lawyer named Jane Whiting. While she was no Atticus Finch or Perry Mason, Whiting was able to expose a nefarious gang of spies and rescue the young son of a prominent senator.

Perhaps the famous and enduring of films featuring a female lawyer is the comedy Adam’s Rib, in which husband and wife lawyers played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn square off in the courtroom and the bedroom. There is trouble in paradise when husband Adam Bonner, a district attorney, pursues the prosecution of a wife for the attempted murder of her husband. Wife Amanda Bonner takes up the defence of the wife and trounces Adam in the courtroom.

You would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated lawyer than Law & Order’s Jack McCoy. Played by Sam Waterston, the character is steadfastly committed to getting criminals off the street. For 16 years, Jack McCoy was consistently superb at his job and, unlike many other television lawyers, Jack was presented in a serious way as someone who would always get the job done.

It’s hard to think of television lawyers these days and not think of the unethical and corrupt Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk. However, it cannot be denied that Saul is successful in his work. Sure, he defends people who do not deserve to be defended, and helps them get away with some atrocious activities. But, if they are paying clients, then who can blame Saul?

Yes, the world needs more lawyers like Atticus Finch, armed with the intangible qualities that set us apart: the specialist expertise, altruism, ethics and the trustworthiness that defines our professionalism.

We need the decency and determination of Perry Mason. We need the elegance and enthusiasm of Jack McCoy. And, we need the independence and integrity of Amanda Bonner.

The hope must be that some of these old-fashioned notions of faithful and selfless service will live on in those who practice law in the movies, on the television screen and in real life.