I’ve always been enamored with the public’s perception of the legal profession. After all, society’s stylization of attorneys in media is likely the first impression most get regarding the legal field and the practice of law. Three years ago, I created an infographic outlining the best legal movies of all time. What better way to follow that up than to focus on the fictional attorneys and lawyers we see portrayed in media?
Whether through books, movies, or television, media allows us to get a glimpse, however real it may be, into an area most folks hope they never experience in real life. But everybody needs an attorney some time, and that’s why stories about the legal profession are so compelling: what good is a lawyer without someone or some thing to advocate for? People want to see stories of attorneys fighting for a cause (even if it’s just money), because people know they’ll need legal help one day, and everyone wants to believe there are people they can call to fight on their behalf.
Lawyers, and the need for them, can be a daunting notion as well. Consequently, it makes sense the public wants to see a different side of the law in comparison. We want to see lawyers as humans…humans with faults, fears, desires, and quirks. That’s why television series such as Law & Order, The Good Wife, Boston Legal, The Practice, LA Law, Ally McBeal, How to Get Away With Murder, and others have been so popular over the years.
Legal fiction gives us a way to show the best and worst of humanity through a prism that intrigues some and frustrates others, because the law is infused with intriguing individuals caught in frustrating situations. That aspect made the best legal movies of all time infographic so enjoyable: it gave many the chance to discover some of Hollywood’s best portrayals of lawyers practicing their craft.
Fictional attorneys influence us all in some way or another, lawyers included. It’s only natural young attorneys will want to emulate their fictional legal heroes. Unlikely to have ever set foot in a courtroom, nearly all of their thoughts, opinions, and preconceptions about the law are likely shaped by what they read in books or saw on television and the movies.
So, I decided to reach out to some heavy hitters in the legal industry and ask these talented professionals to share their thoughts regarding their favorite fictional lawyers of all time. I wanted a wide range of opinions. The result is a great cross section of some amazing legal minds from across the country, including law deans, professors, legal commentators, and top attorneys in practice.
After asking the panel to list their favorites, here are the top fictional lawyers:
Atticus Finch - No surprise here: Mr. Finch is such a role model that many Ethics professors (including mine) make To Kill a Mockingbird required viewing. Atticus Finch is not just one of the greatest fictitious lawyers of all time; he is one of the best characters in fiction - period. He is the personification of the trust, respect, and lion-hearted advocacy the public wants to see in its lawyers. Gregory Peck nailed the part, and he earned an Academy Award on his way to inspiring generation of real life attorneys.
John Milton - The Devil's Advocate came out in 1997 with a blockbuster cast including Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron, and the legendary Al Pacino. After winning an Academy Award for the 1992 film Scent of A Woman, Pacino went on a tear starring in Carlito's Way, Heat, Donnie Brasco, and this gem, prior to The Insider and Any Given Sunday. As Satan, Pacino becomes the incarnation of the inherent fear many have when viewing the legal world, and its players, from the outside looking in.
Denny Crane - Denny Crane first appeared in the last season of The Practice, but continued his role into five seasons of Boston Legal. If it were difficult for William Shatner to break from the Star Trek mold that defines him, you’d never know it from this portrayal. Shatner earned many fans as the irreverent, facetious attorney with a deep-down moral compass that popped up every now and then.
Sandy Stern - Before there was John Grisham, there was Scott Turow. The author of One L reeled off a string of novels in the late 20th century. Before it was even released, there was a fierce bidding war for the rights to Presumed Innocent. Fresh off the third Indiana Jones movie, Harrison Ford was cast as Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor who is accused of murder. As his defense attorney Sandy Stern, Raul Julia steals the show. He tragically died 4 years later.
Saul Goodman - When you're competing with Walter White and Gus Fring, it's hard to steal the show. Regardless, that’s what Bob Odenkirk accomplished with his flawless delivery of the flawed Saul Goodman. Originally just a recurring character on Breaking Bad, he was so dominant that he become a cast regular and got his own series. Saul Goodman works hard, but he’s not afraid to bend or break the rules. He is driven by money and something else…something very difficult to discern, but something that gives his character remarkable depth.
Joyce Davenport - As a public defender (and a woman attorney in general), Davenport was a strong female presence in a male-dominated environment on Hill Street Blues. Though championed by many women, she was a wonderful role model for all attorneys, leading the way on a show that won the Emmy for Best Drama in each of its first four seasons. Her portrayal earned five Emmy nominations in and of itself.
Sir Edward Feathers - Probably the least well known of the top choices, he is the main character in Old Filth, a novel by Jane Gardam. This lawyer has been called one of the most memorable characters in modern literature. Along with Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends, Old Filth comprises a trilogy that is loved by as many as it is missed.
Did this illustrious panel leave anyone out? Who are your favorite fictitious lawyers of all time?