Public’s Perception of Lawyers and the Legal System

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Introduction

A. Orient your Reader to Time, Place, and Issue

Hollywood has long used the cinematic courtroom as a tool to make social and political statements or to manipulate public perception. The trial film genre has tried to explain the relationship between popular culture and law from the beginning of the film in 1895 to the present day. Does this paper seek to explore what kind of community legal popular culture creates? How do the law and film shape our expectations about what the law and the American justice system are about? Is there a method to fix the public’s perception of lawyers and the legal system?

B. State the Problem

With the increase of television shows and films depicting what happens within the legal system, people are observing a false sense of what occurs as a professional in the legal field. Those who work in this field believe that the public learns most of what it thinks it knows about the law, lawyers, and the legal system from the works of popular legal culture. They believe that information or misinformation gathered from popular culture has a significant impact on the law in the legal realist sense. Information such as what judges, jurors, attorneys, legislators, voters, and ordinary consumers or producers do in their contracting, fact-finding, law-applying, and law-making functions. They are convinced that popular culture represents actual popular attitudes and beliefs about the institutions and characters that it describes.

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C. State the Thesis:

Because of the general public’s inexperience with the legal system and law in general, susceptible and inaccurate films and television shows can give the public a false sense of understanding of what lawyers do and how the judicial system works.

D. Lay Out the Organization of your paper:

This paper will look at the relationship between film and television and the law. It will look at Hollywood’s portrayals of lawyers and their influence on how people think about and view the legal profession. It will look at how television and film have shaped the expectations of our legal system and compare them to the realities of legal practice. Finally, it will look at the impact television and film have on potential and current law students in order to discover methods to fix the public’s perception of lawyers and the legal system.

I. First body section

Introduction to the section

The Modern Depictions of Lawyers and the Legal System from the Average Viewer’s Perspective

The legal system has been portrayed in films since the medium's beginning. It was the “golden age of legal films in the 1950s and 1960s that created the bulk of that era's perceptions of the law. Previous generations grew up watching Ben Matlock and Perry Mason, very expensive criminal defense attorneys, who charged hundreds of thousands of dollars to take on a new, difficult case every episode. Most of today's real-life litigants are probably surprised to find that their lawyers are not private investigators, trials are buried in technical formalities, witnesses appear by deposition, and few of the players, including judges, lawyers, witnesses, and the parties, make beautiful speeches or witty remarks.

Numerous articles have been written concerning the portrayal of law, courts, trials, judges, attorneys, and even parties in popular culture. The law has provided plenty of material for both the large and small screen, particularly on television and film. It is important to note that most television and film depictions focus on litigation attorneys and trials. These portrayals are not surprising considering litigation and trial work have greater dramatic potential than the drafting of wills or the closing of real estate transactions. And, trials grip the television audience because they are the civilized equivalent of conflict. Trials are more exciting than anything else a lawyer does and they provide the easiest means to support a narrative.

A. Point

Judges

Popular culture tends to create stock images, and characters with which we become familiar. In popular venues, the 'judge' is generally depicted either as a neutral or invisible placeholder for a fixed and determinate rule of law (which we might call the cultural 'good judge'), or as biased, vulgar, or downright villainous (the cultural 'bad judge'). In the popular conception, the judge as the creator of rules is nowhere to be found. This phenomenon, that judges as legitimate lawmakers are foreign to pop cultural portrayals of judging, should at one level strike us as puzzling. The idea of the judge-as-lawmaker has been with us for centuries, even if current popular cultural portrayals do not acknowledge that.

Despite this history, contemporary depictions of judging obscure judicial rulemaking, what should we make of the failure of popular culture to address this fundamental judicial role? The conventional nature of the well-crafted judicial opinion seeks to achieve a tone of predictability, suggesting that the judge has no choice in making the decision. The goal is to appear neutral, an influencer without politics. The prevailing belief of judges and judging that currently dominates the cultural discourse is simply systematic. It not only claims priority over other possible images of the judicial role but because it is invisible it seems both predictable and not subject to review.

B. Point

Lawyers

Almost all film and television trials are set in a beautiful old mahogany-paneled courthouse with the judge sitting high on a platform above the proceedings. The cinematic courtroom resembles exactly what it is: a stage on which to tell a story. The puzzle is this: if the American public distrusts lawyers more than all professionals and holds judges in higher esteem, then why do Americans believe strongly in the adversarial system, where lawyers make all the important procedural decisions during trials? Possible reasons for this paradox are the influence of popular culture portrayals of the trial process. This reason is rooted in the 'cultivation theory,' which proposes that people often form opinions based on the fictitious stories of pop culture media.

The popular television show Perry Mason greatly influenced how the public looks at lawyers. Perry Mason taught media consumers that the adversary system delivers the truth. Even though Americans hate and distrust lawyers, they want a good one by their side. Countless films and television shows since Perry Mason's day have conveyed the same basic message, solidifying Americans' bone-deep belief in the adversary system.

C. Point

Visual Knowledge

Cinematic characters are usually divided into specific stereotypical roles. Judges, jurors, and witnesses all play one-dimensional bit parts unless the plot revolves around that particular individual. Often, the viewer is placed in the role of the jury to 'sort out the plot. The attorneys, on the other hand, are cast as the heroes and villains of the shows. Focusing attention on language, images, and communications, lawyers need to understand the fluidity between law and popular culture. The two are related; law bleeds into popular culture, and the feedback loop ensures that culture deeply influences the meaning and discourses of law.

Visual learning is indirect. When we see images, our brains work with connections rather than in logical ways. More than written or oral communications, visual images call for emotional responses. Lawyers need to understand better how technologies of the internet, film, and television are changing how people learn. This effect is clear in persuasion techniques by practicing attorneys, who borrow from well-known film or television conceits in both their style and visual demonstrations. It is also present in the minds of jurors; whose decision-making suggests influenced by memes from popular culture (and the attorneys that exploit them). Acknowledging this influence is important to effectively confront any knowledge gaps or distortions it may cause.

Conclusion to the section

Mass media produces images of judges and attorneys engaged in the most dynamic and conflicted of situations because these portrayals generate the largest audience. These stereotypes, however, have very little to do with the reality of the legal process. Real cases rarely go to trial, criminal defendants are almost always convicted or accept a plea bargain, witnesses rarely break down on the stand, and courtrooms are run by the judges, not the litigants. This is important because this departure from reality is critical to the success of lawyer indoctrination. Courtroom drama remains popular in films and on television because Americans are fascinated by what lawyers do, or at least by what dramatic indoctrination generally has portrayed them doing.

II. Second body section

The Realities of Legal Practice

The daily life of the average trial lawyer is quite dull. Trial lawyers spend most of their time in the discovery stage of the litigation, reviewing pleadings, drafting and answering discovery requests, and taking depositions. While there are parts of being a lawyer that can involve some of the glamorous aspects highlighted in television and film, there is also a great deal of detail-oriented and much less interesting work and also potentially significant adverse impact on your personal life.

Legal series is based on conflict and therefore make good stories. They encourage active viewership because each side of the dispute gets equal time, or nearly, to present its generally reasonable arguments. This is a realistic representation of the law because courts deal with conflict and each party usually thinks it has a legitimate cause to defend. The conflicts at the heart of the stories are pertinent because they reflect the current concerns of television viewers: stories of crime, betrayal, fraud, corruption, terrorism, personal injury, and eternal family trouble.

A. Point

You, Will, Be a Great Lawyer Because You Are Good at Arguing

Courtroom scenes are constructed on well-written opposing arguments. Viewers are doubly implicated at these moments: evaluating the arguments while waiting for the jury's decision in favor of one of the two parties. If a viewer has never had direct experience with legal conflict, or even indirect for that matter, the shows give him a notion of the role of law and justice in the lives of ordinary citizens. Although litigation is an adversarial process, legal advocacy is not about “arguing” in the sense of engaging in a verbal battle with your opponent. Instead, it is about persuading your audience, whether that be a judge, mediator, or jury, through a logical, well-researched, well-reasoned discussion based on the facts and the law. Thus, to succeed as a litigator, a track record of “winning arguments” is not as important as top-notch oral advocacy and writing skills. Unlike the lawyers portrayed on television shows, much of the work of trial attorneys occurs outside the courtroom. In fact, less than one percent of all civil cases proceed to trial. Many cases are settled out of court or through alternative methods of dispute resolution.

The work of a trial lawyer is also very research and writing-intensive as much of their work involves drafting briefs, memorandums of law, and motions. Litigators spend many long hours engaged in tedious document review, gathering thousands of documents to be produced in litigation and reviewing each document to determine if it must be turned over to the other parties. While law practice can be intellectually rigorous, much of the lawyer’s work is mundane and repetitive. New lawyers, especially those in large firms, are often charged with the mind-numbing tasks of document review, cite-checking, and routine research. Law firm lawyers must track their time in six to fifteen-minute increments throughout the day, a painstaking but necessary task.

B. Point

Becoming a Lawyer Is a Guaranteed Path to Financial Success

One of the reasonably accurate depictions of a positive aspect of being an attorney is the high pay and the fancy perks surrounding a movie or showing the main character. The top law firms have annual profits per partner of $3.5 million and 5 million, respectively. That kind of money certainly allows partners to easily afford the lifestyles that are portrayed in movies and shows. Even as big law firm associates, you often get access to tickets to fancy events from the firm or individual partners, and you will eat at quite a few fine dining establishments for firm events, such as retreats, or recruiting meals. The salaries are also quite significant, with the big law firm market salary starting at $160,000 per year for first-year associates, fresh law graduates frequently with no professional experience, and rising steadily over the years.

The truth is, the most highly compensated attorneys are employed in the world’s mega-firms, firms with over 101 attorneys, and such firms represent only one percent of all law firms according to the American Bar Foundation’s Lawyer Statistical Report. Furthermore, most mega-firms are extremely selective in their hiring process, choosing only the top students from the most prestigious law schools. Most lawyers work in lower-paying venues such as small firms, public interest, or the government. According to the National Association for Law Placement, 83 percent of all lawyers who work in private practice are employed in firms of fewer than 50 lawyers. Large law firm lawyers report the least career satisfaction according to a recent survey by the American Bar Association. Billable hour quotas at many large firms require lawyers to work 60-80 hours per week. When you divide your hours worked into your monthly salary, that big-firm paycheck may not look so generous. Attorneys employed in the public sector, which ranks among the lowest paying practice environments, reported the most career satisfaction.

C. Point

Lawyers Can Eradicate Injustice and Affect Societal Change

While you can make a positive impact as a lawyer, litigation has little to do with overcoming injustice and everything to do with advocating your client’s position based on the facts and applicable law. Judicial decisions are not so much about the pursuit of justice or right versus wrong as about reaching a compromise between all the parties. At its best, a movie or a show can take the notion of justice and injustice and remind us that law, in the final analysis, is a human enterprise and that there is a human cost behind both our failures and our successes. Films can return us to instances that have tested the law and tested it in the most human of terms.

The judicial policy also affects many case decisions. In an American Bar Association survey, two out of every three lawyers surveyed reported concern that the court system they serve is becoming too political. Saying that some lawyers can or should help promote democratic values is a far cry from films and shows concluding that there is something inherent in being a lawyer that requires all lawyers to engage in those functions. The survey also suggested, that when given a choice regarding public interest law, some lawyers will pursue the light and others will flee to the dark side. How actively and in which direction a lawyer may pursue depends on personal political preferences, political trends, and financial realities.

Conclusion to the section

Television and film lack an accurate portrayal of what lawyers do daily. While most lawyers on television or in movies play the typical hero, villain, or bit player, these actors are nearly uniformly portrayed in dynamic roles that involve investigating cases, strategizing, meeting with clients, and appearing in court. Rarely is an attorney saw toiling away at her desk researching the law, reviewing documents, drafting discovery requests or pleadings, or simply reviewing the case. For example, lawyers on television frequently have bookcases filled with legal books, but they have rarely read cases, check citations, or drafted memos. Such activities would provide little opportunity for plot development or dramatic license, and the true goal of television is to entertain, not to educate the general public about the practice of law. Yet, those activities comprise the daily life of most real lawyers.

III. Third body section

Law Student Perceptions of Lawyering

Many students interested in the legal profession simply do not know what lawyers do or what they represent to American society. Regardless of how they are perceived, it is difficult to dispute that lawyers can be a positive good for society because they are public servants who make enduring contributions to the law’s development and they advance community and client interests. With their specialized understanding of the law and its impact, lawyers remain at the forefront of making important legal and political changes to American society. Envisioning lawyers as virtuous and impartial advocates of truth and justice is infused into some American popular culture. The stories that surround fictional and nonfictional lawyer heroes like Atticus Finch, Perry Mason, and Matlock reinforce the impression that attorneys selflessly represent idealistic notions of equality, fairness, and justice.

A. Point

Effect of Lawyering Exposure on First-Year Law Students' Perceptions

Popular renditions of lawyers portray them as always discovering the truth and achieving justice through courtroom trials in perpetually interesting and controversial cases. In part, the perception flows from the traditional image of a lawyer’s professional identity. The homespun image is inspired by Harper Lee’s portrayal of model country lawyer Atticus Finch in her famous To Kill a Mockingbird. This classic depiction of an attorney, which commands respect and community veneration, consummate professionals who are selfless, community-oriented, and fierce advocates not only of the rule of law but also of clients’ interests. Undeterred by popular passions and causes, Atticus Finch-type lawyers exercise the independent judgment that makes them especially qualified to perform their lawyer role with dignity and honor, a trait that makes them an attractive resource to handle difficult problems or cases in times of legal trouble.

Beyond their public image, the myth that attorneys primarily engage in trial work ignores the fact that most lawyers rarely step inside a courtroom and, if they do, almost all the cases are settled well before a jury has the chance to deliberate on a verdict. The common public perceptions surrounding trial work and all it entails are simply inaccurate on a variety of levels. While most lawyers are engaged in private practice, there is little empirical evidence to show that lawyers litigate too much or abuse their responsibilities in resolving disputes. In fact, studies have indicated that there are many psychological, financial, and time management disincentives for litigants to sue and that most of the grievances by citizens have rarely become full-blown legal disputes that require formal action by lawyers or the legal system.

B. Point

First-year Law Students in Television Shows and Movies

Before law school, many first years are encouraged to watch movies and television shows based on the legal profession, like Legally Blonde, The Paper Chase, Boston Legal, and Law and Order. While entertaining, these shows and movies have helped Hollywood perpetuate several stereotypes of law school. Well into their first year of law school, friends and family still regularly make comparisons between what law students are actually going through and what Hollywood has shown them law students should be. Students are gently reminded that law school is my reality and not a Hollywood production.

It is understandable that an hour-long drama about studying in the library would not do well in the ratings. Whether it is the notion that you can get a 180 on the LSAT and get admitted to Harvard Law School merely by studying for a few months or that you will be a good lawyer based solely on how well you perform in public speaking or how well-dressed you are in court, it could be frustrating to watch these shows and see such a misrepresentation of how hard law students and lawyers work. Film and television directors should please keep in mind that perhaps the most dramatic part of their product is how vastly it underestimates the real-life workload of law students and lawyers.

C. Point

Law Students' Perceptions Compared to Reality

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 hostility. Fast forward twenty years or so and the cable courtroom drama has become a staple in most of our lives. 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, Law & Order, and How to Get Away With Murder. Simply put, nothing on television bears even the remotest relationship to the actual practice of law in any way, shape, or form.

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 of How to Get Away With Murder wins cases because she breaks, quite literally, every single ethical rule that binds lawyers and inexplicably never gets caught doing so. Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife wins cases because of her steely demeanor and the fact that she is calm under pressure. What legal dramas don’t ever talk about 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 the main characters of these shows learn the exact opposite of all the things you need to learn in law school.

Conclusion to the section

Although most college movies have at least some truth to them, students should remember that Hollywood's goal is to make money, so even if a movie is based on a true story, the writers and directors often make creative changes to make the movie more appealing. Law school is a lot of things. Let Hollywood inspire you. Let reality guide you. Ultimately, like the rest of your life, it will be what you make of it.

Conclusion: a mirror image of the introduction

Hollywood has long used the cinematic courtroom as a tool to make social and political statements or to manipulate public perception. The trial film genre has tried to explain the relationship between popular culture and law from the beginning of the film in 1895 to the present day. This paper sought to explore what kind of community does legal popular culture create? How do the law and film shape our expectations about what the law and the American justice system are about? Is there a method to fix the public’s perception of lawyers and the legal system?

With the increase of television shows and films depicting what happens within the legal system, people are observing a false sense of what occurs as a professional in the legal field. Those who work in this field believe that the public learns most of what it thinks it knows about the law, lawyers, and the legal system from the works of popular legal culture. They believe that information or misinformation gathered from popular culture has a significant impact on the law in the legal realist sense. Information such as what judges, jurors, attorneys, legislators, voters, and ordinary consumers or producers do in their contracting, fact-finding, law-applying, and law-making functions. They are convinced that popular culture represents actual popular attitudes and beliefs about the institutions and characters that it describes.

Because of the general public’s inexperience with the legal system and law in general, susceptible and inaccurate films and television shows can give the public a false sense of understanding of what lawyers do and how the judicial system works.

This paper will look at the relationship between film and television and the law. It will look at Hollywood’s portrayals of lawyers and their influence on how people think about and view the legal profession. It will look at how television and film have shaped the expectations of our legal system and compare them to the realities of legal practice. Finally, it will look at the impact television and film have on potential and current law students in order to discover methods to fix the public’s perception of lawyers and the legal system.

The gap between the portrayals and perception exists. The gap between the real legal process and how the law is generally portrayed in film and on television is quite wide, at least as it pertains to lawyering activities. Prime-time lawyers are depicted as engaging in dynamic-lawyering activities and rarely practice paper lawyering. In contrast, practicing attorneys agree that lawyers spend considerable time engaging in the latter. Clearly, there is a divide between popular culture and reality on this issue.

First-year law students have a relatively accurate view of lawyering activities despite viewing erroneous depictions on television. Under the legal-realist view, because society gains many of its perceptions about the law from television and film, these portrayals of the law may result in a viewer's misunderstanding of attorneys' activities. Accordingly, there was an expectation that law students' perceptions would more closely resemble popular culture portrayals because, theoretically, popular culture was the only source of information they had, however, that was proven otherwise. Law students' perceptions more closely resembled reality than popular culture portrayals. Accordingly, we believe that people generally understand that what they see on television is just that-TV.

Although directors and producers already hire and work according to legal advice, because so much of the public is interested in and due to the legal system’s influence, they should depict a more natural, honest depiction of what occurs in the legal field.

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Public’s Perception of Lawyers and the Legal System. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/publics-perception-of-lawyers-and-the-legal-system/
“Public’s Perception of Lawyers and the Legal System.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/publics-perception-of-lawyers-and-the-legal-system/
Public’s Perception of Lawyers and the Legal System. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/publics-perception-of-lawyers-and-the-legal-system/> [Accessed 17 Jun. 2024].
Public’s Perception of Lawyers and the Legal System [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Jun 17]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/publics-perception-of-lawyers-and-the-legal-system/
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