9 Legal Dramas That Are Legally Accurate (And 3 That Aren’t)


Lawyers have an inherently fascinating profession that makes for great entertainment. Even in film, movies like Primal Fear have been hailed as brilliant representations of how entertainment seamlessly blends drama and the legal system. In the context of television, crime dramas have become one of the most popular types of shows around.




The caliber of crime and legal dramas has traversed everything from silly and unrealistic ones to serious, hard-hitting Emmy-winning shows. Covering virtually every aspect of law, most shows aim for a blend of legal accuracy and high character-driven drama. ​Whichever you prefer, legal dramas always seem to have something intriguing to offer. Here’s a look at some lawyer shows that featured some amazingly accurate portrayals of the law — and some lawyer shows where accuracy is tossed out the window so drama or comedic aspects could take center stage.

Updated April 3, 2024: This collection of accurate (and not so accurate) legal dramas has been updated with additional information and even more entries.


12 Matlock (1986 – 1995) — Accurate

Matlock

Release Date
September 20, 1986


Cut from the same cloth as the famed Perry Mason, Matlock deserves a mention due to its upcoming reboot starring Kathy Bates. Created by Dean Hargrove (who also created the 1980s version of Perry Mason), Matlock follows the exploits of a defense attorney named Ben Matlock (Andy Griffith), a Southern-tinged attorney who earned his degree from Harvard. With a modest fee of $100,000 upfront, he’ll find a means to prove reasonable doubt or outright innocence with his quick wit, his inquisitive personality, and his infectiously amicable personality.

Along with Andy Griffith, former co-star Don Knotts (who appeared with Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show) plays the role of Ace Calhoun. Kene Holliday, Linda Purl, Nancy Stafford, and Julie Sommars also appear in the series’ rotating cast. The popularity of Matlock would lead to several different spinoff shows, including Jake and the Fatman and Diagnosis: Murder.


Matlock Is Comparable to Perry Mason

Andy Griffith as Matlock in Matlock
The Fred Silverman Company

Though the character of Matlock has since become a widely-parodied symbol of legal dramas in general, there’s nothing too particularly inaccurate about Matlock as a series. For one thing, Matlock is not as infallible as Perry Mason is. Though it rarely happens, he does occasionally lose his cases, even in spite of his client’s potential guilt or innocence. As for his interactions in the court itself, Matlock rarely steps beyond some slight inaccuracies for the sake of compelling drama. Combine that with the memorable performance of Andy Griffith, and you have a series that remains beloved by genre enthusiasts from the world over. Stream Matlock on Prime Video.


11 The Practice (1997 – 2004) — Accurate

David E. Kelley has become a legendary name as a television show writer and producer. He’s been responsible for some of the most successful and popular legal shows around. The Practice was one of these, and centered on a Boston law firm. Dylan McDermott, LisaGay Hamilton, Steve Harris, and Camryn Manheim made up a portion of the main cast, with each season integrating the firm’s professional responsibilities with the interpersonal conflicts of its numerous employees. It usually relied on the dynamics between the associates and partners at the firm, and was a mostly serious show that also often featured some great comedic elements.


The series’ popularity waned as it went on, particularly around Season 7 and the introduction of James Spader to the cast. However, up until that point, it was an incredible critical darling, netting over 20 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and plentiful wins in a handful of categories. These categories include Outstanding Drama Series and both Outstanding Actor and Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series.

How The Practice Was Legally Accurate

Dylan McDermott as Bobby Donnell in a courtroom scene from The Practice 
ABC

David E. Kelley was himself an attorney before becoming a producer, so his understanding of law firm politics and dynamics came from personal experience. The show’s heavily dramatic moments provided some great insights into the inner workings of such firms and, in many ways, accurately portrayed that world. It also worked well to depict realistic cases and ethical issues, while maintaining an entertaining edge through the characters it featured. Buy The Practice on Apple TV and Prime Video.


10 The Good Wife (2009 – 2016) — Accurate

Featuring the talents of the very popular Julianna Margulies, ​​​​​​The Good Wife saw her playing the role of Alicia Florrick. After Florrick’s husband is embroiled in a highly-publicized political scandal, she returns to her law career, forced to climb back up to the top from the bottommost rung of the legal ladder. Personal elements aside, as she settles back into her old job, the cases and work she takes on make for some thrilling legal drama.


The Good Wife featured an ensemble cast comprised of Margulies, Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, and Makenzie Vega, as well as Josh Charles. The series saw significant praise during its run from 2009 to 2016, ultimately winning five Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Supporting Actress and Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The series would be nominated for just under 200 total awards from a plethora of institutions.

The Good Wife star Juliana Margulies looking at someone
CBS

It’s true that the legal aspects of the show could sometimes stray from reality in favor of dramatic tropes. However, in other ways, it often highlighted great nuanced areas of the law, like an episode that featured a legal battle around marriage equality that spotlighted the legal complexities around individual and religious liberty.


Interestingly, it also featured legal expertise behind the scenes. Three of its writers had legal backgrounds, so credence was often paid to legal concepts being accurately depicted, such as being careful to avoid things like hearsay evidence creeping into evidence in chief and cross-examination scenes. The series’ tech-savvy cases have also been a point of praise, tackling ahead-of-its-time topics like racial bias in online applications and self-driving cars. Stream The Good Wife on Paramount+.

9 Better Call Saul (2015 – 2022) — Accurate


After a successful six-season run, Better Call Saul proved why it was the right choice for a spinoff story from the legendary series, Breaking Bad. It followed the exploits of a sleazy lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk, who became a favorite character from Breaking Bad before it ended. Being both a prequel and sequel to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul melds legal drama with crime thriller elements as Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk) slowly integrates himself into the New Mexico drug trade, all while fashioning a brand-new legal practice for himself under a pseudonym: Saul Goodman, the first-ever “criminal” lawyer.

Though some feel Better Call Saul was snubbed at the Emmys, it no doubt left an impressive impact on its devoted fanbase. It gave viewers a rare dramatic performance from Odenkirk, who put on an absolute clinic as the lead protagonist, with supporting cast members like Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, and Michael Mando similarly stealing the show. But what’s most impressive, however, is how Better Call Saul depicted the less-than-glamorous life of an average lawyer.


1:53

Related

15 Best Courtroom Dramas of All Time, Ranked

Hollywood has released countless courtroom dramas that have captivated and stunned audiences with their riveting themes and storytelling.

Accuracy Isn’t Just About the Law

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul
Netflix

While the show was very exaggerated and unrealistic at times about how it depicted the legal system, many real lawyers often hail it for being accurate in another way. Saul’s constant hustling and scheming to get clients and new cases, according to them, is a very realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a typical lawyer working for yourself. While most lawyer shows depict wealthy corporate lawyers, the vast majority of real lawyers aren’t wealthy, and the ones who work for themselves have to constantly hustle for new clients and work.


For Jimmy, public defense and the pursuit of less-than-glamorous disciplines like elder law was a huge plot point of Better Call Saul‘s first season, with his shady past often drawing the personal and professional ire of his brother, Chuck (Michael Mckean). Though Jimmy would increasingly rely on breaking the law in order to succeed in his cases, his craftiness and legal know-how remain a staple of the series going forward. Stream Better Call Saul on Netflix.

8 Goliath (2016 – 2021) — Accurate

goliath

Goliath

Release Date
October 14, 2016

Seasons
3


Running for four seasons on Prime Video, Goliath sees Billy Bob Thornton donning the role of Billy McBride: a lawyer who has fallen from grace after one particular case swept him into the throes of alcoholism. However, at his lowest point, he attempts to find redemption in the field he once made his name in. Alongside Thornton, Nina Arianda, Tania Raymonde, and William Hurt make up the main cast, with numerous other cast members drifting in and out of each season. Some notable examples include Dennis Quaid, Molly Parker, and Mark Duplass. The series was co-created by David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, and though it only lasted for 32 episodes, it saw a conclusive ending in 2021.

Goliath Makes an Earnest Effort

billy bob thornton goes through a flashback in the show goliath
Amazon Prime Video


Though it’s true that a significant portion of practicing lawyers suffer from substance abuse, Goliath also incorporates a bevy of other realistic touches to make its fictitious stories feel even more weighty. Legalese and references to specific real-life cases are here and accounted for, the differences between jurisdictions for state and federal courts are highlighted, and the purposeful inclusion of comic relief between some tense moments adds a level of legal accuracy that you may not typically find elsewhere. That being said, you can expect expedited court dates and unusually quick pacing to occasionally rear their head. Stream Goliath on Prime Video.

7 For Life (2020 – 2021) — Accurate


ForLife was a terrific, albeit short-lived legal drama with a particularly impressive selling point. Based on the true story of Isaac Wright Jr., the show featured a man named Aaron Wallace (Nicholas Pinnock) after he’s wrongly imprisoned on a drug conviction. Once inside, his determination to clear his name leads him to self-study the law until he eventually earns himself a law degree in prison. The series was created by Hank Steinberg, who previously created the 2002 police procedural series Without a Trace.

Aside from featuring Nicholas Pinnock in the cast, Indira Varma, Joy Bryant, and Marie Wallace co-star in this incredible story. Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, served as an executive producer, and though the series ended after only two seasons, it was briefly given new life on what would become Amazon Freevee in 2021.

Accuracy Was Built Into For Life

Nicholas Pinnock as Aaron Wallace in For Life
ABC 


Since it was based on a true story, the legal aspects were also based on very real principles. As Aaron learns these principles for himself, it gave the show a great opportunity to also pass knowledge of those legal concepts on to viewers in the process. Interestingly, Isaac Wright Jr.’s story isn’t the only time wrongful imprisonment was overruled. Jarrett Adams similarly proved his own legal innocence in collaboration with the Innocence Project in 2007, with Adams subsequently devoting his life to the law as a courtroom attorney. Stream For Life on Hulu.

6 The Guardian (2001 – 2004) — Accurate


Running for three seasons, The Guardian was one of the most underrated legal shows around. It revolved around a young lawyer named Nick Fallin, who was played by talented Aussie actor Simon Baker (The Mentalist). Although Nick was talented and a hotshot corporate lawyer at his father’s firm in Pittsburgh that he was the heir to, he was troubled and lacked morals. After he’s caught with illegal drugs, Nick is sentenced to serve as a lawyer at a free family law clinic helping at-risk children.

What Made The Guardian Different

Simon Baker as Nick in The Guardian
CBS


Rather than glamorizing law and lawyers like so many other legal shows, this one centered on humanistic cases. Nick’s personal battles saw him soul-searching and caught between wanting to keep up his money-chasing hedonistic life while slowly finding redemption through the work he was forced to do there. The legal and trial scenes were solid, but more accurate were the painful stories that did a great job of depicting the plight of children and families that rely on free legal clinics.

Showrunner David Hollander’s idea for the show came from a very real place, as The New York Times explained in a piece about the show:

“The show was created by David Hollander, a playwright and screenwriter whose brother, Scott, is now a child advocate in Pittsburgh. Mr. Hollander said that over the years he had watched his brother at work and heard his stories of children and teenagers who were homeless, abused or at risk in one way or another — but often determined and resilient.”

Stream The Guardian on Paramount+.


5 The Lincoln Lawyer (2022 – Present) — Accurate

Based on Michael Connelly’s popular books, the highly successful Netflix show The Lincoln Lawyer follows the exploits of criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). As the show’s title suggests, Haller has an unconventional practice that operates outside his Lincoln Navigator automobile. Based on two real lawyers, each season so far has dealt with a different client he defends, following the case from inception to verdict.

Packed with great drama and performances, the show has become one of Netflix’s most-viewed shows in history. Neve Campbell stars alongside Garcia-Rulfo, with Becki Newton, Jazz Raycole, and Angus Sampson making up the main cast, in addition to rotating guest stars.


The Lincoln Lawyer Is Legally Sound

Manuel Garcia-Rulfo in a poster for The Lincoln Lawyer (2022)
Netflix

The great part about The Lincoln Lawyer is that, if you’re into legal drama, it does a great job of being legally sound. Most legal aspects of it deal with the criminal justice system but do so accurately, often displaying a great understanding of things like federal rules of evidence. It also highlights nuanced legal concepts in clever and realistic ways. Seeing how the book — and subsequently the show — drew directly from the real-life lawyer David Ogden, as well as the work of Dan Daly, The Lincoln Lawyer is a legal drama that doesn’t skimp on realism. Stream The Lincoln Lawyer on Netflix.


4 Law & Order (1990 – Present) — Accurate

Dick Wolf’s legendary police procedural and legal drama show Law & Order ​​​​​​ran for 20 seasons between 1990 and 2010 before being revived, and continues to run to this day. It’s also branched out into a full-blown franchise, with other shows sticking to the base format while dealing with more specialized units and cases. Arguably one of the most iconic and recognizable legal dramas on television, Law & Order‘s accolades and prominent guest stars are too numerous to count. Thankfully, at least in the show’s earliest (and arguably best) episodes, its attention to legal detail is one of its most intriguing positive qualities.


A Great Mix of Realism and Drama

The cast of Law & Order (1990) stands together
NBC

While mostly formatted for quick-fire investigations and trials that center more on dramatic effect, the show is still renowned for its brilliant use of real criminal justice concepts and legalese. Nuanced concepts, both from the prosecutorial and criminal defense sides, are often depicted, and it usually does so with a high degree of accuracy, despite the cases and trials being unrealistically sped up to have them wrapped up in a single episode. While later seasons of Law & Order may weigh dramatic storytelling and shocking reveals above the legal accuracy, the cases – especially in the numerous spinoff shows – often find a perfect balance. Stream Law & Order on Peacock.


Related

How to Watch Every Law & Order Series in Order

Discover how to watch the entire Law and Order franchise in chronological order.

3 Suits (2011 – 2019) — Inaccurate

Suits

Suits

Release Date
June 23, 2011

Seasons
9

One of the most popular legal shows around, Netflix’s airing of Suits took the show’s popularity to all new heights as it became one of its most binged shows, and now seems set for a new spinoff series. It follows a glamorized New York corporate attorney, Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), as he becomes friends and works with Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams) after Mike successfully poses as a corporate lawyer thanks to his photographic memory.


Suits Is Designed for Drama

Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, in black tie apparel, in Suits
USA Network

While Suits does feature the kind of drama and jostling for partnerships and promotions that high-end corporate firms are known for, it also heavily dramatizes those things and the legal cases it deals with. Designed for fast-paced drama, the cases and never-ending conflict are well-suited to binge-watching, which probably explains its massive appeal on Netflix. Unfortunately, as fun and entertaining as it is, the show is very much TV fiction that never quite feels like an accurate representation of real life courtroom situations and the life of real corporate lawyers. The sheer number of ethically dubious procedures, numerous conflicts of interest, and absurd pacing simply don’t paint an accurate picture of the law. Stream Suits on Netflix.


2 Ally McBeal (1997 – 2002) — Inaccurate

Another David E. Kelley creation, Ally McBeal, was fun, entertaining and cute, with plenty of drama and comedy mixed into it. It saw Calista Flockhart as the title character, and follows her life, career, and floundering love life after she joins a Boston law firm. Established names like Greg Germann, Lisa Nicole Carson, Jane Krakowski, and Peter MacNicol make up the surrounding cast. The series would even share some continuity with The Practice, either in the form of dedicated crossover episodes or characters from either show appearing in brief guest roles.


While the show’s popularity would gradually fall as the years went on, Ally McBeal‘s first two seasons were a smash hit, averaging over 10 million viewers throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. It even won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1999, along with a Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy in both 1997 and 1998.

Ally McBeal Has Too Much Fluff

Robert Downey Jr. in Ally McBeal
Fox

The show often dealt with legally sound cases and principles, but it was hard to ever take any of them seriously, since its comedic elements featured way too many fluffy elements and were overly exaggerated, often making Ally McBeal seem more like a legal parody. The show’s focus wasn’t even necessarily on its cases, as it often used the world of legal drama as a backdrop for interpersonal relationships and eccentric comedy. A fun watch from an entertainment point-of-view, maybe give this one a pass if you’re looking for a serious legal drama. Ally McBeal is currently unavailable on streaming.


Related

The 10 Best Lawyers in TV Shows, Ranked

Whether you’re on the right or wrong side of the law, we decided it was high time to rank some of our favorite lawyers on television.

1 Bull (2016 – 2022) — Inaccurate

Bull

Bull

Release Date
September 20, 2016

Seasons
4

While Bull isn’t a straight-up legal drama, it deals with a very real service that lawyers and law firms often employ. Trial consulting is the practice of hiring a specialized consulting firm to help law firms prep for major trials. The consultants help with things like jury selection and witness preparation to give clients a greater chance of winning their case. Bull centers around a trial-science expert and psychologist, Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly), who uses his skills through his trial consulting agency to help clients win cases. Despite working with lawyers for a living, he personally cannot stand them due to his own history with the legal system.


The series had a modest six-year un on CBS, with Freddy Rodriguez, Geneva Carr, Christopher Jackson, and Jaime Lee Kirchner being just a handful of names attached to the cast alongside Weatherly. Reviews for the series were mixed overall, despite its lengthy stay on television, and some have noted the series’ legal inaccuracies as a point of criticism.

Michael Weatherly as Jason Bull in Bull
CBS


Although based on a real field, Bull often features exaggerated methods and pseudo-psychological techniques geared to drama more than accuracy. It employs a mixture of mentalism and manipulation skills to twist people, facts, and situations in ways that simply don’t happen in real life trials. Worse yet, it perpetuates myths that such firms can accurately predict outcomes of cases, know how juries will vote, and assume control of cases once hired. In reality, if any of these things were possible, lawyers and the entire legal system would become obsolete. It’s arguably one of the most legally inaccurate pieces of media out there. Stream Bull on Paramount+.

Now that you’ve seen the world of crime through the eyes of a lawyer, be sure to check out our picks for gritty crime thrillers below:



.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *