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Inaccurate Legal Process on Television Shows


L.A. LawThe PracticeMatlockAlly McBealBoston LegalCSILaw & OrderJAGNight CourtJudging AmySuitsDamages.

It seems that since the beginning of time (or at least television), legal television shows have captured our hearts, imaginations, and let’s not forget—our Nielsen ratings. What’s your favorite legal television show? As for me, nothing makes me happier than a bag of microwave popcorn and a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit marathon. Now while I’m the first to admit that legal television shows make for some first-rate entertainment, they’re notoriously guilty of perpetuating many myths about lawyers and the legal process. The following are some of the most glaring differences between the portrayal of lawyers and the law on TV versus real life:

  •  TV Myth: Every case is decided at a jury trial. On TV, it often appears that every legal case is decided at a jury trial. Well, let me assure you that this is just a made-for-Hollywood convention since the truth is much less exciting and TV-worthy. In real life, about 95 percent of civil cases are settled or dismissed without a trial, and more than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury.
  • TV Myth: Lawyers can bring in a bombshell “secret” witness during trial. A common, game-changing plot device in legal television shows is a lawyer bringing in a surprise witness at trial who drops a bombshell that leaves everyone slack-jawed in astonishment. This “surprise witness” tactic will typically never happen in real life because as a general rule in criminal cases, each lawyer must provide opposing counsel with a list of every witness he intends to call to the stand to testify during trial.
  • TV Myth: Lawyers often talk about their clients and cases with their trusted inner circle. On TV, you may see a lawyer discussing his client’s legal situation and case specifics during pillow talk with his wife before bed, with his trusty bartender at his local watering hole, or in a dark alley with his informant from the police force. In real life, an attorney is generally bound by the attorney-client privilege to not discuss a client’s case with other people without the client’s express authorization. If the attorney violates the attorney-client privilege, he can be reprimanded by his state’s bar association or disbarred and there may even be grounds for a mistrial. For more information on the attorney-client privilege, click here.
  • TV Myth: Opposing lawyers are enemies. On TV, legal counsel for the prosecution and defense are frequently depicted as mortal enemies battling to the death every time they meet and “setting each other up” to get the upper hand. For example, in one notorious plot line on Boston Legal, fictional attorney Alan Shore arranged for opposing counsel to meet up with his prostitute friend and then blackmailed the attorney with compromising photos of the encounter.In real life, such corruption, as well as brutally contentious “advocacy”, sparring, and choice language between opposing counsel is definitely not the norm. Opposing lawyers will often face each other many times in their legal careers; as such, smart lawyers are conscientious about not burning any bridges and try to be accommodating, collaborative, and cordial to their adversaries. Moreover, if a judge catches wind of any unprofessional or illegal behavior among lawyers, the lawyers may be held in contempt of court or may be reported to their state bar association for sanctions.
  • TV Myth: If you’ve got physical or forensic evidence, then you can correctly pinpoint the perpetrator of the crime. This TV myth is often referred to what a USA Today article coined as the “CSI effect.” In the popular television show CSI, there seems to always be physical or forensic evidence to prove the crime. As such, jurors who are usually familiar with the show often expect there to be such physical or forensic evidence to pinpoint the perpetrator of the crime at hand. In addition, since you rarely see a plot line on CSI where the physical or forensic evidence has been degraded or is inaccurate, jurors often unrealistically expect physical or forensic evidence to always be accurate. In real life, physical and forensic evidence is oftentimes inaccurate or inconclusive and attorneys must use witness testimony to prove a client’s innocence or guilt.

If you’ve been convicted of a crime in South Florida, you can’t rely on what you learned on TV about lawyers and the law to guide you through the process. Rather, you need to find an aggressive and experienced real-life lawyer such as the Miami criminal lawyers and Fort Lauderdale criminal lawyers at the South Florida law firm of Galanter Law to represent you and give you the best shot of having your criminal charges reduced or dismissed, where possible.

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