7 Things TV Gets Really Wrong About Being an Attorney

The cast from the show 'Suits', a show with attorneys

Here's a deductive reasoning question for all past and present LSAT takers:

Legal shows are to law, as: 

A)   Grey's Anatomy is to medicine

B)   The Newsroom is to journalism

C)   Girls is to spoiled 20-something hipsters living in Brooklyn

D)   John Travolta is to announcing people's names

If you guessed D) as in, butchers the very essence of what it's truly like to practice at a Big Law law firm, congratulations — you can join the growing ranks of millennials who are dissatisfied with their career choice

The suits on Suits have as much to do with complex commercial litigation, securities transactions and the due diligence of real life as The Brave Little Toaster did with the realities of preparing breakfast. Here are just some of the ways in which Ally McBeal and all other legal dramas have misled you:

1. Court is just one giant intellectually stimulating conversation.

The dramatic debates in the CBS and Bravo courtrooms aren't only unrealistic, they're often contemptuous, as in, against the law and legal ethics. Court is actually as riveting as watching 14-year-olds spell things

Though not a sentence I ever thought I'd write, Tucker Max (who, oddly enough, has a law degree) accurately sums up such scenes:

"The actual just of being a lawyer is NOTHING AT ALL like what you see on TV. It is possibly less like the real thing than any other profession depicted on television. Every doctor I've ever talked to scoffs at shows like ER and House, but they all say that at least the diagnoses are connected to the physical symptoms we see and are treated with the proper kind of drugs."

If a lawyer raised her voice a single time like Alicia et al. have been prone to, she'd spend the rest of her career practicing from inside of a jail cell.

2. Law is fast-paced.

Actually, law moves as quickly as your word processor from 2003. The wait time to try a murder case in New York City is approximately 750 days. They're generally spent by the attorney in front of a computer, prepping. Not rushing in and out of jail cells and courtrooms like on television.

Just look at how much SVU promises from criminal justice and our police departments in one episode! Are lawyers also police men?

3. Lawyers are experts in ... everything.

When we last left The Good Wife's heroine, Alicia, before the winter break she was defending someone accused of smuggling drugs. The week before, she was representing a band in a copyright infringement suit (watch her dancing to the song in question above). The week before that, she was justifying as to the testamentary capacity of a former client.

Just a casual criminal/intellectual property/estates practice going on there, Alicia?

If you want to work in different fields, go practice your pitching. Somewhat paradoxically, lawyers that work at big firms also work in small practice areas. Unless they're hanging a shingle up and opening a general practice in Montezuma, Kansas (population: 965), lawyers with white shoes specialize in commodities securities, or something similarly narrow. 

It takes years (and exponentially more grey hairs) to become an expert in a single, minute, remote and precise area of law. 

4. Women can have it all.

Work/life balance and gender parity is a huge problem in the profession. Big Law is, essentially, structured to push women out, but the statistics speak for themselves. At the end of the fourth season, Alicia (sorry to keep ragging, Good Wife fans) is offered the prestigious position of manager partner at Lockhart Gardner. Only 4% of women hold that role in the largest 200 firms in America. And 11% of the largest firms in the U.S. have no women on their important committees. 

Alicia, however, juggles her career along with her children mostly seamlessly. Here she is, juggling it with a quick romantic encounter. But for some — as reported in this letter on Above the Law — it's not that easy.

The complexities of this balance are better explored in this thoughtful New York Times op-doc — that takes less than 10 minutes to watch — than in the days of screen time we have devoted to the law.

5. Law is a stable career.

Though they entertain us, these shows aren't doing the profession any cultural favors. Law is not a stable career path. At all. The Atlantic reports that U.S. law school applications are down by close to 50% and 85% of graduates have at least $100,000 in debt.  

"When surveyed, about 6 in 10 lawyers say they would advise young people to avoid a legal career," writes Richard Gunderman and Mark Mutz. Harvey Specter would disagree, were he not fabulously wealthy and extremely content with his life (and were he real as opposed to fictional).

6. Lawyers take the fate of the world into their own hands.

To be sure, there are as many legal issues in the world as there are people to generate them. Many of them are complex and fascinating, rich with ethical, intellectual and moral questions — just like on television. Women have the right to choose, same sex couples can receive federal benefits, and legal representation has become a fundamental right in a fair criminal trial

But unless you're the 1% of the 1%, a day in the life is more likely to resemble this young tax attorney's, as interviewed by Ms. JD:

"On most days, I will have 2-3 research assignments where I am looking through the Code, the Regulations, case law, tax treaties, and treatises trying to find a concrete answer to my client's question. I will also be reviewing tax provisions of partnership agreements in order to determine whether they beneficial to my client or will be assisting in drafting the tax provisions of a partnership agreement for a client. I also am helping client fill out a variety of IRS tax forms and am drafting memos for clients on a variety of tax laws and federal & international tax topics so that they can better understand a particular aspect of an investment. Lastly, almost daily, I participate on a variety of conference calls with opposing counsel, tax accountants, clients, etc."

Sounds like the greatest episode of Boston Legal never written!

7. Friends repeatedly yell, "LAWYERED" every time you make a point.

Okay, this one's true.