They can be sleazy, unethical and more concerned about wealth than justice, but that’s certainly not the case with most of our favorite lawyers from the history of TV. But they are still in one of the most esteemed, and needed, professions around. And for many lawyers, they enter the profession to help people, whether it’s to clear an innocent person wrongly convicted, to help take crime off the streets or to provide legal representation in a civil suit.
Attorneys on television have represented all aspects of lawyering – the good and the bad. Legal eagles have been popular characters since the early days of the medium, from morally upstanding lawyers like Perry Mason who endeavor to prove the innocence of someone wrongly accused to more recent morally-ambiguous lawyers like Patty Hewes (“Damages”) who sometimes bend the rules to obtain justice. Sometimes we delight in parodies and spoofs making fun of the profession we all love to hate – from the great Phil Hartman‘s Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (“Saturday Night Live”) to Phil Morris‘ Jackie Chiles (“Seinfeld”). There are honorable lawyers like Southern grump Ben Matlock (“Matlock”) who we love, and the lawyers we should hate but love anyway like Alan Shore (“Boston Legal”).
Through the years, television series have upped their game and given us a diverse canvas of portrayals for this esteemed profession – with female attorneys such as Joyce Davenport (“Hill Street Blues”) and Clair Huxtable (“The Cosby Show”) showing all women (regardless of color) that they can be successful and still retain their femininity, and the suave Victor Sifuentes (“L.A. Law”) displaying the ability of a minority to find success in a white-male-dominated profession.
Love ’em or hate ’em, whether they’re defending the innocent or prosecuting the guilty, fighting for a cause or aiming to make the big bucks no matter the cause, this profession has given us some of the most entertaining and memorable characters on television. Tour our photo gallery where we rank the best of the best. As with all of our TV professionals’ galleries, we have limited ourselves to just one selection per series.
Joel McHale as Jeff Winger
Once a highly successful defense attorney, Winger lost his license because it’s discovered that he got his “degree” from the country of Colombia, rather than Columbia University. He is now enrolled at Greendale Community College with the goal of getting his degree so that he can return to his previous life. It’s easy to see how he got away with his deception so long, as the cynical former lawyer manages to finesse his way out of sticky situations and unwanted work.
24. Saturday Night Live
Phil Hartman as Keyrock
“He used to be a caveman. . . but now he’s a lawyer. . . Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.” Over 100,000 years ago, Keyrock fell in some ice, but later was thawed by scientists and went to law school. His main tactic is to use his “humble” beginnings to win sympathy from jurors, even though he very adeptly navigates modern technology. One of the late brilliant Hartman’s most memorable characters, he wins us over with his unrepentant abuse of the system.
23. How I Met Your Mother
Jason Segel as Marshall Eriksen
Idealistic law student Marshall dreams of being an environmental lawyer, but reality hits when he learns “do-good” lawyers don’t earn the big bucks, so he takes a position with a corrupt corporation. However, over the years, Marshall’s tender heart and conscience take over, and he finally achieves his dreams of using his law degree for good, eventually becoming a judge.
David James Elliott as Harmon Rabb Jr.
Once a hotshot naval aviator, Rabb is now a judge advocate in the United States Navy. He sometimes uses unusual methods, such as firing an automatic weapon at a courtroom ceiling, to prove his point and to prosecute his cases effectively.
Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter
Striking a delicate balance between doing whatever it takes to win and refusing to lie or tamper with evidence, Specter outwits his opponents who expect him to be willing to break the law to win. This tactic has helped him become a winning attorney, rising to the position of senior partner, becoming the youngest ever in his firm.
20. The Good Fight
Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart
Feisty and independent, Lockhart rises to the challenge when her retirement plans are halted due to a Ponzi scheme, and she has to start all over again at a new firm. A headstrong liberal with an intense dislike for guns and violence, she confronts moral conflicts in her romance with a conservative ballistics expert, and in court cases that have political elements.
Phil Morris as Jackie Chiles
It may be “outrageous, egregious, preposterous” to include this parody of Johnny Cochran among so many distinguished fictional lawyers, but who can forget the lawyer constantly befuddled by Kramer’s antics? And it’s Chiles who infamously fails to get the “Seinfeld” gang off for breaking the Good Samaritan laws in the series finale.
18. Arrested Development
Henry Winkler as Barry Zuckerkorn
“I’m not ‘super prepared.'” The senior Bluth’s incompetent lawyer often “asks Jeeves” for advice, while himself offering such sage legal advice as “take to the sea!” That is, when he’s not busy trying to get out himself out of his own legal troubles. And because he’s the “Fonz,” he’s always cool no matter what he’s doing.
17. Will and Grace
Eric McCormack as Will Truman
Although he eventually leaves to pursue other goals, Will spends several years as a successful corporate attorney. Perhaps it’s his law background that makes him the voice, albeit a sarcastic voice, of maturity and reason amongst his superficial and wacky friends.
16. The Practice
Dylan McDermott as Bobby Donnell
As a defense attorney, Bobby frequently finds himself conflicted with his sworn duty to do all he can to defend his client, while at the same time knowing many of his clients are guilty, but get off on technicalities. The inner turmoil he faces causes him to become disillusioned by the justice system he once admired, and causes upheaval in his personal life.
15. The Cosby Show
Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable
We don’t see Clair in the courtroom, but if she’s as savvy and commanding there as she is as wife to a successful doctor and mother to five highly independent children, then we know she’s the top of the game. With her quick wit, smarts and cool demeanor, there’s no doubt she has put opposing counsel in his place a time or two.
14. Boston Legal
James Spader as Alan Shore
Sarcastic, infuriating, womanizing, Shore is the epitome of the unethical lawyer, using any means necessary to win, with an uncaring attitude towards being caught. However, he is a true defender of the innocent, and fights the system with a brilliance and style that gains sympathy from a jury, most often leading to victory. Conniving slime bucket or crusading hero for lost causes – you never know what you’ll get with Alan Shore, and Spader plays him in the most entertaining fashion.
13. Picket Fences
Fyvush Finkel as Douglas Wambaugh
This honest, quick-witted defense attorney is challenged with many controversial issues and bizarre characters and happenings in his little town (including the Pope being the only witness to a possible murder). Wambaugh is often the source of humor, some self-inflicted, some hurtful, but is dedicated to do his sworn duty – “Whatever I can do to get my client off – that’s the American way!” – despite flickers of conscience when it’s evident a client is guilty. Finkel won a Prime Time Emmy for his quirky, sympathetic performance of this one-of-a-kind character.
12. The Defenders
E.G. Marshall as Lawrence Preston
Alongside his son, Preston defends cases that are relevant to the early 1960s, including Civil Rights cases, conscientious objectors and, most controversially, abortion. He accepts cases that no one else wants, and is even tricked at one point into taking a morally ambiguous murder case, because he believes that “Everyone, no matter who they are, deserves the best defense available.” Marshall won two Primetime Emmys for his performance in this highly-lauded and awarded series.
11. Ally McBeal
Calista Flockhart as Ally McBeal
Ally seems more concerned about her love life and her biological clock than she does her court cases. But this quirky, neurotic character is a reflection of all of our inner craziness, and she is FUN. Ally McBeal gave us the gift of dramedy, which has become a hugely popular subgenre. Oh, and Ally gave us the unforgettable dancing baby – that alone may secure her status in the television history books.
10. Hill Street Blues
Veronica Hamel as Joyce Davenport
In 1981, it was a rare thing to see a woman portray a lawyer, much less a public defender involved in a secret romance with a police captain. “Hill Street Blues” ushered in a new era of television, with its ensemble cast and multiple ongoing storylines; Davenport represents a new era of female representation on television, showing an independent, intelligent woman following a successful career path while retaining her femininity and maintaining a love life.
9. How to Get Away with Murder
Viola Davis as Annalise Keating
A highly driven and successful defense attorney and law professor, she drinks, she’s covering up the death of her philandering husband and she is devoted to protecting her law students. One of television’s most complex characters, Annalise Keating spends years helping to cover up a murder (albeit an unintentional one) while fighting for underdogs wrongfully convicted, making her one of the most ferocious and most feared attorneys. Davis became the first black actress to win a Primetime Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of this dynamic character.
8. Night Court
John Larroquette as Dan Fielding
Smarmy Manhattan Night Court prosecutor Dan Fielding is sarcastic, self-absorbed and obsessed with sex. Despite the fact that he likes to put everyone else down, he does occasionally show a bit of tenderness, especially when it involves one of his associates. Laroquette’s zany portrayal won him four consecutive Primetime Emmys.
7. Law and Order
Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy
“Hang ’em high McCoy is the morally-driven Executive Assistant District Attorney of Manhattan who is willing to bend the law if necessary to get a criminal off the streets. Although his personal life is usually a wreck, his professional track record is nearly flawless. McCoy’s popularity has led him to being declared a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
6. L.A. Law
Jimmy Smits as Victor Sifuentes
Good-looking, passionate Victor Sifuentes sometimes lands in hot water with his quick Latin temper, but he is often trying to bring awareness to social injustices, which he faces himself in a white-male-dominated environment. Sifuentes is the first Latino character to have a prominent role in a hit American drama, and Smits’s multidimensional portrayal earned him six consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations, with one win.
Glenn Close as Patty Hewes
A master manipulator, Hewes has risen to the top of her male-dominated profession with a mercilessness that seems to strip her of any heart. However, she is redeemed by her history of abuse by a parent, which has made her an advocate for those who are bullied and abused by a sometimes unfair justice system, resulting in a complex character who is equal parts despicable and admirable.
4. The Good Wife
Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick
Florrick has given up a promising law career to become the “good wife” to a husband with political aspirations. A scandal that sends her husband to jail has Florrick scrambling to protect her children and to regain a long-lost foothold in a cutthroat profession. Calm, deliberate and faultlessly honest, Florrick learns to play the game she despises in order to survive.
3. Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad
Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman
Probably the best CRIMINAL criminal attorney, Goodman was born Jimmy McGill, but took on the name Saul Goodman because it sounds similar to “it’s all good, man.” From the time he was a child, Saul has had a knack for con artistry, making him the man to go to for the likes of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to help with their shady dealings. What was originally a three-episode stint turned into a major recurring character in “Breaking Bad,” with Odenkirk’s memorable performance leading to his own spinoff series.
Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock
With his gray suits, Southern witticisms and penchant for hot dogs, it’s hard to believe that this lawyer is a high-priced, hugely successful defense attorney. But Matlock is willing to go the distance for his client, searching the crime scene for clues missed and employing his own private detective, to clear his defendant. When he calls a witness to the stand, it is inevitable that he’s found the little piece of evidence that will implicate that person and clear his client of any reasonable doubt. Griffith made this thrifty curmudgeon into a well-loved television icon, and he remains a popular fixture in television reruns.
1. Perry Mason
Raymond Burr as Perry Mason
Ironically, Burr’s most memorable film role is that of a suspected murderer in “Rear Window,” made just a few years before he took on the role of a criminal defense attorney who frequently defends murderers. With the help of his devoted assistant Della Street, Mason typically uncovers some little fact that leads to the real culprit, whom he calls to the stand and wheedles a confession from. Burr set the standard for television attorneys, and his portrayal of the legendary barrister won him two Emmys, with the continued popularity of the series making it one of the longest-running and most successful in television history.