What TV/Film Gets Wrong About Criminal Defense Lawyers

“The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Law & Order,” and “The People vs. O.J Simpson” are just a few of the movies and TV shows that feature criminal defense lawyers. While the shows can be gripping and engaging, they often don’t represent criminal defense attorneys accurately. Here are a few misconceptions that Hollywood has about lawyers.

Criminal defense attorneys do not have to lie to win their case.

In the FX miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” it seemed as if Johnnie Cochran (one of O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys) would do anything to win his case. Even if that meant lying and manipulating to get his way. The civil-rights-attorney-turned-criminal-defense-lawyer was portrayed as ruthless and manipulative. From changing the décor in O.J.’s house to whispering inappropriate comments into the Prosecution’s ear, Cochran was shown manipulating everything around him.

Regardless of the truthfulness of this portrayal of Cochran, it is not an accurate representation of criminal defense attorneys across the nation. Believe it or not, most criminal defense attorneys are rule-following, ethical beings. As a matter of fact, in “real life,” it is very difficult for a lawyer to get away with lying and outright manipulation because of the Rules of Professional Conduct. These are a set of standards that all lawyers are held to and must follow. Several of these rules strictly prohibit any lying or misrepresentation. If a lawyer is caught lying in a proceeding, manipulating evidence, or hiding evidence, he or she can be disbarred, held in contempt, or even prosecuted criminally.

Additionally, a lawyer may not tell the court their client is innocent, when he or she knows the client is guilty. Instead, the attorney should only address lack of evidence provided by the prosecution. That is, the lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Wrongly telling the court that their client is innocent is misrepresentation and against the Rules of Professional Conduct. Unsurprisingly, most lawyers are not willing to put their own lives and career on the line for a client.

Criminal defense attorneys are not necessarily the “bad guys.”

If you watch any TV show or movie with a criminal defense attorney, chances are he or she is the “bad guy.” This is the case with most “Law & Order” episodes, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Lincoln Lawyer,” etc. The myth that every criminal defense attorney is the bad guy is incorrect for several reasons.

First, not all criminal defendants are guilty. In fact, many criminal defendants are innocent and then wrongly convicted, which is a tragic error on behalf of the criminal justice system. A person can be wrongly imprisoned for years, or worse, executed.

Second, even if the criminal defendant is guilty, he may not be telling his lawyer that. He may be preaching his innocence to the criminal lawyer who truly believes him. In turn, the criminal defense attorney is simply working to defend (in his/her mind) an innocent person.

Third, sometimes people make mistakes and break the law. Not every criminal defense attorney is representing a serial killer. Let’s say the criminal defendant stole food from a grocery store to feed her starving children. Would the criminal defense attorney be portrayed as a villain in that story? Probably not.

What’s more, a TV show or film wouldn’t be entertaining without a villain. People want a bad guy, someone to point the finger at and blame. So, to make a good TV show or film, producers will make a villain for the audience. Unfortunately, criminal defense lawyers are easy targets.

Also, remember that there isn’t always a “bad” lawyer in every case. On the other hand, sometimes there is one. It’s all about perspective and objective truth, but the bad lawyer isn’t necessarily the defense lawyer. Prosecutors can be bad people, too. If we could know for certain that O.J. Simpson was innocent, would his defense attorneys been portrayed in a better light? How would the prosecution have been portrayed?

Criminal defense attorneys are not all wealthy egomaniacs.

In “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first time Robert Shapiro (O.J.’s head defense attorney) is introduced in the show, he is sitting in a fancy restaurant, surrounded by three beautiful women, bragging about one of his murder cases. Shapiro then gets approached by a very formal waiter: “Excuse me sir, sorry to bother you, but you have an emergency phone call.” This scene has “wealthy egomaniac” written all over it, which is exactly what the producers were going for when they introduced the audience to O.J.’s lead defense attorney.

This seems to be a theme with many TV shows and films. Once again, it is an unfortunate and inaccurate stereotype that stigmatizes all criminal defense lawyers. It’s important to remember that there are wealthy egomaniacs in all types of jobs. There are wealthy egomaniac prosecutors, doctors, realtors, business owners, and so on. Yet, criminal defense attorneys always seem to be the pinnacle of the stereotype. Why is that? Wealthy egomaniacs make good villains. Criminal defense lawyers are easy targets for the villain role. It’s as simple as that.