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Courtroom Drama Genre Mythbusting

There are countless examples of Americans’ fascination, bordering on obsession, with courtroom dramas. From the early days of Ally McBeal and LA Law, you saw beautiful people doing interesting work and getting rich in the process. Law and Order spanned two decades. Judge Judy had no shortage of viewers. So we know there is plenty of interest to support the ongoing law-themed entertainment.  As long as it’s seen as the fantasy escape that it is, there’s no harm. The disenchantment comes the first time a litigant sets foot in the courtroom or receives a bill for services. Here are three common courtroom myths and their true-life realities.

Myth #1 – Courtroom mach-speed scheduling

BUSTED! With the compact timeframe of most television legal dramas, a crime can be committed, investigated by police, the suspect charged, arraigned, tried and jailed in the span of 22 minutes. So lawyers can hardly blame their clients for misunderstanding the time span of an actual real-life trial. Most clients have never been involved in litigation.  As Christopher S. Krimmer wrote in his Wisconsin Lawyer article, “I blame The Good Wife for My Disappointed Clients,” the client is even more disappointed to learn that we cannot file their lawsuit on Friday and have the trial on Monday (or after the commercial break.)”  In reality, even an uncontested divorce can take a few months and an acrimonious one can stretch on for two years or more.  A typical DUI case can last a couple of months.  Filing and finalizing all the paperwork for an adoption can take 18 months to three years.

Myth #2 – Courtroom action is exciting

BUSTED!  Hollywood would have us believe that there is suspense at every turn.  If the attorneys have done their homework, there should be no shocking plot twists.  “Nor do we have that surprise witness who bursts through the courtroom door at the last minute to save the day,” wrote Krimmer.  In his online blog, “6 Myths Hollywood Has You Believe About Jury Trials,” brettmw wrote of legal dramas, “We have seen the situations before.  Every time a witness is testifying, you can hear a pin drop in the courtroom.  The suspense is unbearable.”  He says of real-life courtroom situations, “Trials are BORING.  It’s true that you can usually hear a pin drop but it’s because everyone has fallen asleep.”

Myth #3 – Clients don’t have to pay lawyers

BUSTED!  Quite often courtroom dramas skip over the part where the attorney gets paid.  On television, lawyers are depicted working on contingency.  “In a contingency fee arrangement, a lawyer agrees to represent you and get paid only if you win, then takes his or her fee as a percentage of what you were awarded,” according to NOLO – Law for All.  There are certain types of cases that lend themselves to contingency fees.  Some personal injury or malpractice lawyers are willing to gamble on a big enough win to justify working for contingency fees but that is a limited example of a legal situation a typical citizen might encounter, couple this with the vast number of pro bono cases that are doled out on the silver screen.  You also have big shot law firms that swoop in to defend corporate clients “on retainer” and public defenders being appointed for criminals.  It’s no wonder some clients are surprised to be charged for their legal representation up front.
So enjoy Grisham novels and Suits for the fiction that they are and remember lawyers don’t get paid in hugs like My Cousin Vinnie.

Wisconsin Lawyer, “I blame The Good Wife for My Disappointed Clients,” Christopher S. Krimmer, June 2014.

HubPages, “6 Myths Hollywood Has You Believe About Jury Trials,” brettmw, June 12, 2014.