Louis Tully: I think you guys are making a big mistake. I do mostly tax law and probate stuff occasionally. I got my law degree at night school.
Well, that's fine, Louis. We got arrested at night. (Head Desk
In real life, each specific area of the law has centuries worth of traditions and precedents built up behind it. There are unique legal principles at work in all of these case areas. Law schools make their students take classes in a broad range of legal issues, but true understanding and expertise comes only through years of specialized training and experience. Put simply, a tax lawyer is not the guy you want handling your slip-and-fall case.
The legal counterpart of an Omnidisciplinary Scientist
. In fiction, however, if you have a law degree, that means you can work on any legal issue, particularly trial law. Never mind that there are countless branches of law, such as tax law and copyright law, which are unrelated to trial law.
Now, in an emergency situation it's not unreasonable to turn to the first lawyer available to you for basic advice while you search for an actual specialist. That tax lawyer isn't a criminal law specialist, but he certainly understands more about the mechanisms of the legal process than an elementary school teacher or taxidermist.
Still, when it comes to dealing with the important, nitty-gritty details of your case, you want an attorney with specialized experience.
Part of Artistic License – Law
. Often considered an Acceptable Break from Reality
in Law Procedurals
, since it gives the writers more flexibility in the kinds of cases they can write while keeping the price of the cast down.
Film - Live Action
- In the Marvel Universe, Jennifer Walters, the She-Hulk, specializes in superhero law, but that includes criminal cases, civil rights law, civil suits and anything else that might come up.
- A villainous example (well, more or less) was Tony Stark's former lawyer Bert Hindel. Tony ordered Hindel, as the head of his legal department, to use the courts to stop Justin Hammer from using technology Hammer had stolen from Stark Enterprises. Hindel did such a poor job of representing Stark's interests that Tony finally fired him. Hindel would later return as the defense lawyer for Stark's Stalker with a Crush, Kathy Dare, who was facing attempted murder charges for shooting Tony. He used all sorts of sleazy legal tactics to make Stark look bad and portray Kathy as being under considerable mental stress. As a way of getting revenge on Stark, he also planned to write a juicy tell-all book with Kathy about what Tony was supposedly really like. Fortunately, Hindel didn't do any better than when he was the head of Stark's legal team, and ended up getting Kathy committed to a sanitarium. In any event, the fact that Hindel was trying to practice public, private, criminal, and civil law simultaneously, and was incompetent at all of them, shows why this Trope is unrealistic.
- During the Silver Age, Murdock and Nelson seemed to be the only law firm in Marvel Comics New York City. So despite the fact they were mostly defence attorneys, Foggy and Matt seemed to be involved in everything from wills to contract negotiation.
- Perry Mason has Perry getting involved in a lot of different types of legal business- in fact, he often gets his trial clients by having them hire him for something else entirely.
- The Good Wife has had the main cast at Lockhart/Gardner and eventually Florrick/Agos doing everything from capital crime defense to immigration law to copyright law. Recurring characters tend to be specialists, however: Lockhart/Gardner's David Lee specializes in family law (e.g. divorces and paternity suits), while recurring antagonist Louis Canning mainly defends corporations from class-actions.
- This is subverted in Drop Dead Diva. Jane Bingum works many colorful cases, but she primarily ends up working civil and criminal cases, as she is a criminal lawyer.
- On Suits, part of the reason why Harvey Specter rose so quickly through the law firms ranks is because he is proficient in multiple areas of the law. His main specialty is mergers and tax law but he also spent a few years working as a criminal prosecutor specifically to get a solid background in criminal law. This is averted with most of the firm's other partners who specialize exclusively in certain areas of the law and can be very territorial when Harvey gets involved in a case that falls into their area of expertise. On the other hand, as part of their Training from Hell, the junior associates are supposed to work any case that is assigned to them no matter what areas of the law it touches on or how proficient they are in the subject matter.
- Law & Order:
- Subverted one episode. An accused person hired his cousin, a real-estate lawyer, to represent him. He did a comically lousy job at arraignment.
- Another Law & Order example: Marty Winston, the defendant in the episode "By Perjury", was a lawyer who decided to defend himself in his murder trial. However, he was a civil litigator who had never touched a criminal case before. In this case it was due to pure arrogance, as he was supremely confident in his ability to beat the murder rap by himself.
- In The WB series Just Legal Don Johnson plays a slightly Amoral Attorney who doesn't specialize, he does everything - murder, civil cases, litigation, and everything in between. He and his new associate also do all their own legwork because they're understaffed & too poor to hire anybody.
- Marshall in How I Met Your Mother is explicitly going to law school for the sake of becoming an environmental lawyer. However, he spends the majority of the series as a corporate lawyer for one evil Mega Corp. or another. More forgivably, he acts as unofficial legal counsel for his friends, who tend to get in relatively mild trouble and just need someone cheap with an understanding of the legal system.
- On JAG, Harm argues before a Navajo Tribunal Court in "The Return of Jimmy Blackhorse" and an Australian Court in "Boomerang". Mac argues before a Sharia court in "The Princess and The Petty Officer". And both Harm and Mac defends Secretary of the Navy Edward Sheffield at the International Criminal Court in "People v. SecNav".
- Averted in "Innocence" where they hire a Japanese attorney, and in "Standards of Conduct" where it's clear that neither Harm nor Sturgis has any intimate knowledge nor experience with civil cases (but Bud does).
- Subverted in an episode of The Cosby Show. Vanessa gets a school assignment to make a video about the job of one of her parents. She eagerly picks her lawyer mom, thinking she does exciting criminal law cases like what they always show on TV. The problem is, she's a real estate lawyer, which Vanessa quickly finds dreadfully boring. That her father helps deliver babies on the other hand...
- In Modern Family's fourth-season finale, "Goodnight Gracie", the cast goes to Florida when Phil's mother dies. While there, Gloria has to answer for an old arrest warrant. Mitchell accompanies her to court and winds up representing not only her but various other defendants there. Yes—somehow a lawyer from California who's been shown doing primarily civil and corporate work there will just find it a breeze to represent clients in Florida charged with petty crimes and traffic violations.
- Alan Shore on Boston Legal regularly takes cases outside his specialty. It's usually explained as him having a personal interest in the case and his clients being unable to get another lawyer. When working on a credit card case he does get referred to a financial lawyer and tells him that he needs him for his expertise.
- Ben Horne in Twin Peaks has his brother Jerry as a lawyer to help out with business deals and contracts. When he's arrested for the murder of Laura Palmer, Jerry quickly realizes that he's out of his depth and tells Ben that "as your lawyer, your brother, and your friend, I highly recommend that you get a better lawyer."
- Massey Reinstein of Schlock Mercenary was a public defender on Luna before signing on with the Toughs out of self defence. Since then, he's negotiated contracts, negotiated treaties, defended and prosecuted in civil and criminal cases, all in at least a half-dozen jurisdictions. He's also shot several opposing attorneys, although that's not directly related to his skills as a lawyer. He does have the benefit of the entire gathered knowledge of the Partnership Collective due to an interrupted brainwashing implant operation, but one would think certification would be an issue.
- In Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, Harvey will take the case. Any case. From criminal defense to setting up a business to civil defense to being the plaintiff. There seems to be a slight bit of specification with the other lawyers (Freezoid is explicitly an excellent criminal defense attorney, but even he is shown representing people in civil suits).
- Subverted on Daria—though she's occasionally threaten lawsuits to anyone she feels deserves it, Helen is specifically a corporate lawyer. For example, in one episode she and her sister Rita have a fight about whether or not Helen should handle her niece's divorce case; given their difficult relationship, Rita seemed to think Helen was just making excuses not to help.
- On The Simpsons, Lionel Hutz usually practices civil law, but he has taken cases as a prosecutor and a defense attorney as well (one time as a court-appointed attorney, in fact) and even represented them in a child custody case once. His record in any branch of law isn't all-too good.
- Of course, the more competent Blue Haired Lawyer also seems willing to take both civil and criminal cases.
- For many years David Letterman used his local (Indiana) GP attorney to handle all his multimillion dollar contracts. When the first Late Night Wars erupted he was advised to get a real entertainment lawyer. Temporarily he got the permission of superagent Michael Ovitz to be able to drop his name until he set something up with someone else.
- Are you a barrister in a Commonwealth jurisdiction? Congratulations! You are required, by law, to represent anyone and anything that crosses your desk to which you can give your proper attention. Assault? Motion to strike out a Defence? Administrative Tribunal? All on the same day? You're hired! Barristers who do civil work all the time who get given a murder trial can beg off by saying they don't have the experience to give the matter the attention it deserves.