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It is because of Suits, The Good Wife, Law & Order, and many other fictional shows depicting the life of a lawyer that many people have a warped sense of what that life – and consequently, our legal system – is really like. Although the life of a lawyer can be exciting and sometimes dramatic, it is definitely not akin to what you see on TV. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to let you know the four main differences between TV lawyers and real lawyers.

1. A Specialist who Specializes in Nothing

What astounds me the most with lawyers on TV is the breadth of knowledge they have of every area of the law. Most real life lawyers work within the parameters of no more than a few different legal practice areas. With that said, quoting case law off the tip of your tongue, as many TV lawyers seem to be able to do, gets more complicated the broader your practice area becomes. This is especially true given that the law is ever-changing, with new cases being decided on a daily basis.

On television, you often see the same lawyer going to court arguing Intellectual Property one day, Criminal Law the next, just to top it off with Commercial Law on their third day. This is unrealistic and leads people to believe that we always know the most updated law on every issue that could possibly come up within a given field. The reality is that the more unique or obscure your issue is, the higher the likelihood we’ll need to research case law and legislation prior to being able to provide you with a proper opinion.

2. Your Day in Court

Our legal system does what it can to help individuals settle their case outside of the courtroom, as this will save both sides time and money, and will keep their dispute for the most part confidential. On TV, however, everyone seems to end up in court within a few days from the start of litigation. This is completely unrealistic. If your case gets to court, and it most likely will not, then this will generally take anywhere between one to three years. Even though you may want to start a claim out of principle or you may want your “day in court”, getting there will be a very long and very expensive trip.

When a real lawyer does make it to court, they generally have some hundreds of documents with them, piled up into several boxes, carried in on a trolley. On the other hand, TV lawyers barely have more than a suitcase or a few documents in their hands. At the point that you’ve finally made your way to the courtroom for a motion or a trial, there are generally hundreds of relevant documents that need to be brought to court.

Finally, real lawyers who make it to court may be there for weeks, if not months, over the course of one trial. TV lawyers, on the other hand, seem to be in and out of the courtroom within minutes or at most hours. A real trial takes time to get all of the relevant evidence on record, much more than what is afforded in one TV show.

3. Paperwork Instead of In-person Meetings

In the same way that police TV shows don’t show you how much paperwork a cop actually does on a daily basis, lawyer TV shows do not demonstrate the amount of time that is generally spent researching the law and drafting numerous emails, letters, pleadings or other documents. This is also true for in-person meetings. Most communications between counsel is by way of telephone calls or emails (especially if you want something in writing). TV lawyers, however, always seem to want to speak to each other in person. This would often be too costly for the client, especially when counsel do not reside in the same city, and does not leave a paper trail.

4. Rules of Professional Conduct

Obviously a TV show gets more interesting with increased drama. However, real lawyers are bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct, among other things, and must act courteously to opposing counsel (although I would argue that most do anyway). Screaming in court, interrupting at discoveries (referred to as depositions on American TV shows) and threatening opposing counsel, as is often seen on TV, is not something that happens in real life. If it does, it could result in disciplinary action for the lawyer involved.

Don’t get me wrong, TV lawyers and real lawyers are not so far removed as to be completely unrelated. But let’s just say that what you see on TV are the best parts of our job – or at least the most exciting!

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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