How To Get Away With Murder and How Not to Be a Lawyer

I’ll be the first to admit that the seeds of law school were sown in my head around the age of four, when I began to obsessively watch Matlock reruns with my Grandma. For those of you who don’t know, Matlock is a legal drama starring Andy Griffith as the titular character, a cantankerous criminal defense attorney based in Georgia. Ben Matlock had a killer Southern accent, an impeccable fashion sense, and a court demeanor that teetered on the brink of outright hostile. I loved Ben Matlock. I wanted to be Ben Matlock.

Matlock in his trademark grey suit. Source: MeTV Network.

Matlock in his trademark grey suit. Source: MeTV Network.

Fast forward twenty years or so and the cable courtroom drama has become a staple in most of our lives. Even if you don’t watch one, you’ve heard of one. In the 90s and early 2000s, it was Law & Order, Boston Legal, The Practice, and Ally McBeal. More recently, it’s been Franklin & Bash, Damages, The Good Wife, (still) Law & Order, and How to Get Away With Murder.  Although I’ve chosen Shonda Rhimes’s latest endeavor as the title of this post, what I’m about to say could really apply to any of them.

Simply put, nothing on television bears even the remotest relationship to the actual practice of law in any way, shape, or form. On some level, this statement is obvious; I think most adults reach a point where they realize that Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t showcase what doctors actually do any more than Friends accurately depicts the experience of living in New York City with no regular income or marketable skills.

And the thing is, that’s fine, because it’s television. I don’t think there’s any real harm done when cable networks consistently, grossly misrepresent the legal profession. People don’t really base their decisions to become lawyers on personal admiration of Ben Matlock or Perry Mason or Annalise Keating, and I certainly hope we are intelligent enough to not take statements of the law at face value when they come out of a television set.

No, my beef with these shows is more superficial. With only a few exceptions, legal dramas credit success or failure in the legal profession to the personal qualities of the lawyers in question. Ben Matlock wins cases because he has an eerie ability to tell when his clients are lying to him. Annalise Keating wins cases because she breaks (quite literally) every single ethical rule that binds lawyers and (inexplicably) never gets caught doing so. Alicia Florrick wins cases because of her steely demeanor and the fact that she is calm under pressure.

What legal dramas don’t ever talk about (understandably, mind you) is the amount of super boring, incredibly tedious, and very hard work that goes into preparing for trials. I’m not a lawyer yet, so I can’t fully speak to how insulting it must be to see your profession represented as being based wholly on how manipulative individual lawyers can be. As a law student, I can speak to how annoying it is to watch those five dumb-dumbs on How to Get Away with Murder learn the exact opposite of all the things you need to learn in law school. They apparently never go to any of their classes, never study for any finals, and only occasionally read any cases or learn any substantive law.

Listen, I completely understand that an hour-long drama about studying in the library would not do well in the ratings. But it’s still frustrating to watch these shows (and, admittedly, I love most of them) and see such a misrepresentation of how hard law students and lawyers work. Another great example is everyone’s favorite law school movie, Legally Blonde. No, you can’t get a 180 on the LSAT and get admitted to Harvard Law School merely by studying for a few months. And no, you won’t be a good lawyer based solely on how well you perform in public speaking or how well-dressed you are in court.

In sum, I love de-stressing with the weekly drama on How To Get Away With Murder as much as the next person. But please keep in mind that perhaps the most dramatic part of that show is how vastly it underestimates the real life workload of law students and lawyers.

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