Jonathan Bethune is a Content Developer at Knewton.
The LSAT is only the first step in what all future legal eagles hope will be a grand career in law.
But exactly what will that career look like? Will you be defending clients in court? Working for a big corporation? Prosecuting bad guys? Or perhaps someday starring in your own daytime court TV show? Don’t sweat it if you aren’t sure. To help you see where a good LSAT score might take you, I’ve put together a handy list of the best legal television out there.
Set up your TIVO accordingly:
1. Law & Order et al
The best legal procedural on television. The original version is best for law majors since it doesn’t focus as much on the cops as SVU and Criminal Intent. Trial By Jury arguably would be the best for people interested in criminal law, though unfortunately the show only lasted one season. The original and best version ran for 20 seasons, and is still something of a staple show for getting a sense of New York City and its legal system. We’ll soon see how the new L.A. setting affects the formula, but I doubt there will be much change. Each episode is its own self-contained discourse on legal issues and news of the day. Episodes often featured guest stars, some of whom went on to become stars in their own right. Sam Waterson was a personal favorite, as the gruff assistant DA Jack McCoy.
2. The Wire
More a cop show than a legal one, The Wire really addressed all aspects of urban society and the interconnectedness of the legal system, the media, the schools, and the drug gangs. It’s unlikely that I’m the first person who has recommended the show to you, and most probably, I won’t be the last. While critics have continuously praised the Baltimore crime drama for its gritty realism, I’m a fan for sort of the opposite reason. I love The Wire because it is dramatic. Drama is about tension, and real tension comes from a story that keeps you guessing — one that is genuinely character driven and doesn’t lend itself to tried and true conventions of cop shows. The realistic dialogue manages to avoid the trappings of more naturalistic documentary-style shows and instead fuels the show’s drama, empowering the story with an underlying morality. Fair warning: You may not even want to get into law after watching.
3. Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law
As with a lot of shows on Adult Swim, either you get it and love it, or it is just a mess of randomness. Place me firmly in the former camp for this show. Harvey Birdman mixes surreal humor with classic Hanna-Barbera characters for some of the funniest twelve minute stories ever produced. Steven Colbert is fantastic as Birdman’s boss, Phil, a man who oozes epicness. Don’t expect to get much practical advice on being a defense attorney.
4. The Practice
I’ve never been crazy about TV shows that idealize trial attorneys — people who defend (alleged!) murderers, rapists, and crooks for money. There is a reason why we have so many mean jokes about lawyers. Still, The Practice manages to be worth watching, if only for Dylan McDermott’s power to disarm you with his boyish good looks. David E. Kelly’s writing is consistently funny and thought-provoking, even if you find yourself disagreeing with half of the show’s preachy closing arguments. Are real life trial lawyers really this principled and idealistic? Are juries really this gullible? I’d say “no” to the first question and “I hope not” to the second.
5. Boston Legal
Ok, I guess I should elaborate. Boston Legal is actually a spinoff of The Practice, though it’s far more jovial than its source material. It follows the exploits of a group of talented if slightly disturbed lawyers working for the Crane, Poole, & Schmidt law firm. As if Captain Kirk were not enough incentive, this hilariously written show features a glorious cast that includes James Spader, Candace Bergen, and Betty White. It also has some of the best guest appearances of any drama I’ve ever seen, including Tom Selleck, Scott Bakula, Katey Segal, Robert Wagner, and even Al Sharpton playing himself in one particularly amazing episode. It’s a smarmy and smug show that’s more than a little full of itself and, in my opinion, is best taken in small doses. Regardless, anyone who plans to work in a courtroom can learn something from Alan Shore’s excellent discourses.
6. L.A. Law
The current era of legal dramas really began with this 1986 series. L.A. Law established the style and format for 90′s dramas like Ally McBeal. Arguably no drama did as good a job tackling hot button issues such as race, gay rights, and the drug war during the late 80′s and early 90′s. Though the references may seem dated for today’s law students, the show is still very funny and well-acted. L.A. Law also launched the career of Jimmy Smits, who went on to do great work in NYPD Blue, The West Wing, and Dexter.
7. Judge Mathis
There are thousands of daytime court shows out there, but there’s only one that’s really worth your time: Judge Mathis. He mixes keen insight, humor, and a smattering of didactic asides on civil law into every episode. I like Mathis because he isn’t rude like Judge Judy or a loudmouth like Judge Millian. He’s also far more entertaining than Judge Alex, Christina, and Joe Brown combined. Mills Lane was the only judge who came close to being as good as Mathis, if only because of his awesome voice, though sadly his show is no longer on TV (not available on DVD either!!!).
James Woods is in top form as a former elite defense attorney turned public prosecutor in this smartly written legal procedural. He basically carries the show, as the supporting cast is largely forgettable. Though it only lasted two seasons, Shark managed to cover an eclectic mix of topics and cases, with a few of the clichÃ© network drama episodes (guy with a bomb in the courtroom) thrown in for good measure.
This powerfully written show dedicates each season to one major case. It’s star-studded cast includes Glenn Close, Martin Short, William Hurt, Lilly Tomlin, and Ted Danson. The last season focused on a Bernie Madoff style financial scandal and was both timely and entertaining.
NBC is probably still kicking itself for canceling this legal drama after its first season back in 1995. JAG (Judge Advocate General) ran for ten successful seasons on rival network CBS. It follows a group of military lawyers as they investigate cases involving United States marine and navy servicemen. Aside from the setting change to military bases and battleships, JAG is pretty similar to typical legal shows like The Practice or LA Law. The show also spawned the popular spinoff NCIS, which last year spawned its own spinoff. Come for the military legalese, stay for the delectable Catherine Bell.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Matlock, Reasonable Doubts, Ally McBeal
Was your favorite legal TV show left out in favor of a less-worthy option? Let us know in the comments!