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Some TV Lawyers Don’t Make The Grade on Ethics

Lawyer shows have been a staple on TV since Perry Mason. A new lawyer show, The Grinder, got low marks for portraying attorneys as “bungling idiots” from the American Lawyers Public Image Association.

The Grinder also got the attention of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, whose executive director Jayne Reardon decided to grade lawyers on how ethically they practice. Some got As, a good number got Ds and Fs.

Does it matter?

“We know that lawyer television shows are aired for entertainment—not as a primer on the work of lawyers or their ethics. Yet, it appears these shows have a huge impact on the image of the profession in the eyes of the public,” Reardon said.

She noted that polls conducted by Gallup ask the public to rate the ethics and honesty of various professions. In the December 2014 poll, only 21% of the people rated the honesty and ethical standards of lawyers as very high or high.

In another poll, conducted for the American College of Trial Lawyers, 44% of the respondents said that the ethics displayed by television lawyers are better than those displayed by real lawyers. Only 15% said TV lawyers’ ethics were worse than real attorneys.

Her conclusion: “Ouch.”

In her report on a handful of the 127-plus lawyer shows on TV, some fictional attorneys got good grades. Here’s who they are, and some reasons behind Reardon‘s evalution.

Getting an A were:

Sarah MacKenzie (Catherine Bell) of JAG.

  • She demonstrates respect for the system and all in it, strictly adhering to military court rules.
  • She proves herself to be a civil and professional lawyer with a strong work ethic.

Victor Sifuentes (Jimmy Smits) of L.A. Law.

  • He acts as a sound ethical lawyer, always seeking the truth.
  • He is the ultimate champion of justice, looking out for the underdog and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Oliver Babish (Oliver Platt) The West Wing.

  • Ethics are a top priority for Babish; and he makes it clear that he will leave his post if the president fails to follow the law.
  • He always takes the time to ensure the President’s family and staff are aware of the legal ramifications of their actions and conversations.

Eugene Young (Steve Harris) The Practice

  • He is stoic and hard-working, always following a strict ‘by the book’ approach to the law.
  • Serving as the ethical voice of reason for the firm, he wants to change the system for the better.

The less illustrious members of the video bar included:

Maury Levy (Michael Kostroff) The WireGrade F

  • He regularly coaches his clients to lie under oath and has even helped many of them create fake corporations to hide their assets
  • His primary motive lies in the need for gaining wealth and prestige as the ‘go-to’ lawyer for Baltimore drug lords.

David Rosen (Joshua Malina) Scandal Grade F

  • At the start of his career, most of his actions were ethically sound, but as he gains power in the government his ethical nature disappears.
  • He is known to manipulate relationships in order to obtain information and blackmails for his own personal gain.

Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) Suits Grade D-

  • By allowing Mike to practice without a license, he perpetuates a fraud, an offense that would cause Harvey to lose his law license.
  • Although he plays fast to get his wins, he demonstrates flashes of ethical behavior, like refusing to be part of evidence tampering, committing perjury, and waiving the collection of legal fees for his less wealthy clients.

Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) Law & Order Grade D

  • He is known to manipulate and withhold evidence in an effort to get his cases to go his way.
  • His language and tone are often out of line in and out of the courtroom.

James McGill AKA Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul Grade D+

  • He acts as a highly competent lawyer able to problem solve and find loopholes to help clients win their cases.
  • He is always an advocate for his clients whether that means assisting them in laundering money or even hiring hit men for their needs at a moment’s notice.

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.