Court Pillars

5 Things Legal Shows Get Wrong

Many people love watching TV shows and movies that are based on the legal system and crime. There are shows that cover every aspect of the legal system from following law enforcement in real life to thrilling courtroom dramas and everything in between. These shows are fast-paced and exciting and seem like they provide a sneak peek of what the real criminal justice system is like. However, a vast majority of these shows and films exaggerate the reality of what happens in courts.

Here are five things that TV gets wrong about the law:

1. There is A LOT of paperwork in the legal field.

Crime shows and movies love to focus on the exciting police investigations and fascinating trials, but they rarely show the hours of writing that goes into each case. Many people are surprised to hear that the vast majority of an attorney's time is spent outside the courtroom. A typical day for a lawyer often involves a lot of legal research, drafting legal documents, and filing those documents with the court.

2. The defendant rarely testifies.

In the shows, we often see dramatic outbursts from a criminal defendant when they are put on the stand. However, this rarely happens because most defendants do not actually testify in their own cases. The main reason for this is to protect the defendant. It also prevents defendants from lying on the stand which can get them into even more trouble.

One of a lawyer's ethical duties is to prevent the defendant from lying on the stand and also not allowing anyone to testify if they believe they are going to lie. Every criminal attorney will advise their clients not to testify falsely, and many will advise them not to testify at all. If clients won't agree to be truthful, the lawyer can actually request to withdraw from the case.

3. Most cases don't go to trial.

This can be true regardless of what kind of case it is. In civil cases, the overwhelming majority of cases reach a settlement between the parties before they go to trial. In criminal cases, many people plead guilty, accept plea deals, or may even have their charges dropped. Research shows that less than 10% of criminal cases go to trial. According to Pew Research Center, only 2% of federal criminal cases go to trial. And even if a case does go to trial, they are almost never as exciting as they are depicted in the movies.

4. Lawyers have strict ethical obligations.

When the main character in a show is a criminal attorney or criminal lawyer, the storyline often tempts them to cross ethical lines to win their case. These kinds of movies might show criminal attorneys making up false stories or fabricating evidence and getting away with it. In reality, there are many safeguards in place to prevent lawyers and their clients from lying and presenting fake evidence including ethical rules put in place by bar associations. If an attorney violates these rules, they can get into serious trouble including losing their law license, having to pay fines, or even ending up in legal trouble themselves. In real life, an attorney has to protect their clients without becoming part of their crimes.

5. The justice system can be very slow.

Most legal shows will go from the committal of the crime to trial in one episode, but this is a far cry from what actually happens. In both civil and criminal cases, there are a lot of steps from the beginning of a case to trial that take a substantial amount of time. In reality, a criminal defense lawyer has to do things like arguing motions, gather evidence, prepare witnesses, and other things that can take months or longer before a case goes to trial. Many cases can drag on for years before they are settled or go to trial.

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