If the viewpoint of the show is that of a defense attorney, his clients will be innocent so often that the defendant being guilty is a subversion.
If the prosecutor is the protagonist, however, then usually the defendant is guilty — see Law & Order. When we know the guys doing the accusing, the defendant is seldom wrongfully accused, but if the guilt of someone arrested by another cop comes into question, you can bet your ass he's innocent, or at least mostly innocent. When this happens often enough with protagonist defense attorneys, it presents the implication, intentional or not, that the Police Are Useless.
Of course, in Real Life, both defense and prosecution exist for good reasons, because the matter of a defendant's guilt is uncertain. It's a bit odd that either side in a trial would be seen as a "good guy" or "bad guy" when they are, realistically, just people doing their jobs. Even if we know (somehow) that the defendant is guilty, the role of the defense attorney is still valuable, to ensure that the prosecution has actually proven its case. In some jurisdictions with a "school" of defence lawyers (such as the English bar and the Scottish Faculty of Advocates), lawyers have no choice who they represent: In Britain, although there's no legal obligation to defend every client, "cherry-picking" is frowned upon heavily, and therefore not a wise move.
However, there is a bit of truth to the prosecutor's version of this. Prosecuting attorneys are not supposed to prosecute if they believe that a defendant is innocent, and the District Attorney always has the discretion to drop charges. Still, in cases where the guilt or innocence of the defendant is uncertain, the prosecutor can go ahead; the purpose of the trial process is to dig out the truth.
Of course, another main reason why this is not true to real life is that if real lawyers become too picky about which clients they represent, they go out of business very quickly. Very rarely do litigated cases ever involve a clear good guy v. a clear bad guy.
See also Amoral Attorney for the Evil side.
- Played with in Monster, where Vardermann will only take on clients he determines to be innocent.
- In the Ace Attorney manga, Phoenix gets a call from Robin Wolfe, whose employee Eddie Johnson committed suicide on the way home from a meeting with him, leading Robin to be suspected for his murder, but there are several obvious lies in Robin's account. Phoenix and Maya, after talking to the rest of the people at Wolfe Manor, including Eddie's brother Brock, realize that Robin essentially drove Eddie to suicide by torturing him with spiders even if he didn't kill him himself, and decide to refuse to take his case. They go to look for him, but he's missing, and soon afterward, ends up murdered, and Phoenix ends up defending Robin's innocent brother Bobby.
- Clumsily averted in a Captain America story where Cap's girlfriend is a lawyer defending the head of A.I.M. Not because she believes everyone is entitled to representation, but because she's got the Idiot Ball this month, and is the only person in the story who sincerely believes he isn't the head of A.I.M.
- Most of the people Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson's law practice defend are indeed innocent (since Matt can hear the heartbeats to know when he's being lied to), but they believe enough in the letter of the law to have defended some real scumbags.
- One time in particular, Matt takes the case of a client who he believes to be innocent because of his heartbeat. It's only after he's gotten the client declared innocent of the charges that he realizes he was guilty, but had a pacemaker.
- Subverted to hell and back when Matt is hired to defend Mr. Hyde, an Ax-Crazy Genius Bruiser accused of murder. Hyde is as much of a bad guy as any of Daredevil's other enemies, but he repeatedly insists that, despite being guilty of a whole bunch of other crimes, he's innocent of the one he's hiring Matt to defend him against. As it turns out, Hyde was telling the truth, and Matt tracks down the true killer as Daredevil.
- Played completely straight in ...And Justice for All. Al Pacino plays a scrupulous attorney who focuses on defending honest clients, then is blackmailed into protecting a rapist judge who enjoyed screwing with him. He breaks down and tells the jury he hates his client, then quits law forever.
- Played completely straight in The Devil's Advocate.
Milton: ...Acquittal after acquittal after acquittal until the stench of it reaches so high and far into heaven, it chokes the whole fucking lot of them!
- This is actually Milton's master plan - create the most skilled Amoral Attorneys imaginable, put them at the disposal of the most despicable people in the world, and have them use the loopholes in the law to protect the guilty until the world is filled with human monsters, making the world his and his alone.
- At the end of the film, after the Reset Button is pushed, Lomax takes the trope to heart and dismisses himself from the defense of a child molester, which essentially wrecks his career, since it's unethical and illegal for a defense lawyer to do this in the middle of a case without permission by the judge or their client (both of which emphatically do not give it).
- Subverted in the movie Primal Fear. The defense attorney spends most of the movie trying to prove that his client is not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. He succeeds, and the client will be committed to a mental institution instead of prison. However, the attorney finds out that his client was just pretending to be insane and is actually guilty of not only the murder he was charged with but another as well. Because of attorney-client confidentiality, the attorney can't tell anyone the truth.
- In Daredevil, Matt Murdock will only accept innocent clients. Because of his super lie-detecting powers, he knows exactly who they are. But of course there aren't that many of them and the ones that are tend to be poor, so the movie notes that the firm is nearly broke. To keep the legal scene more exciting in the movie, they apparently made Matt the prosecuting attorney in a rape case, which private attorneys cannot do unless they have a prosecutor's brief from the state to take the pressure off a Crown Prosecutor or DA for that case. It gets lampshaded early on when Foggy reminds Matt that they were taught in law school that they have to defend people who might not be innocent, and Matt snarks that it was Foggy's best class.
- In Witness for the Prosecution, Sir Wilfred only decides to defend Leonard Vole after he's convinced of his innocence.
- Averted in A Few Good Men. Ross is the opposing prosecutor in the court case where Kaffee is the defense attorney, but both respect each other, and Ross's anger at Kaffee's last-ditch plan to make Jessup confess to his involvement is clearly tinged with some concern, as Kaffee would have certainly been held in contempt if Jessup hadn't slipped up.
- Subverted in Reversal of Fortune. Alan Dershowitz doesn't care whether Von Bulow is guilty or not, and is only defending him because of the constitutional principle involved. Matter of fact, he freaks out when he thinks he's going to have to present the case as if Von Bulow is innocent, as there's no way he's going to be able to make people believe that.
- Molly's Game: Despite being in hot water with the FBI, Molly is ultimately a decent person, and this compels Charlie to represent her in the case.
- My Cousin Vinny: although Vinny is a little rough around the edges, he successfully defends the (mostlynote ) innocent boys from a murder charge. The prosecutor, to his credit, acts perfectly professional and even friendly towards Vinny throughout the trial, and in the end honorably admits defeat.
- 2666: Played with in regards to Klauss lawyer. Shes definitely on his side, but still shady.
- In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch defends an innocent man, but his opponent (the prosecutor) is portrayed as a good (if still somewhat bigoted) person who's just doing his job. Interestingly, To Kill a Mockingbird mentions Atticus having defended obviously guilty people in the past, but because he's a good guy, he tried to make them Plea Bargain.
- In Eric Linklater's children's novel The Wind on the Moon, this is averted - because there is just one prosecutor and one defender around in the small town, they are the best of friends, and (secretly, it is pointed out) take turns winning their cases! The case in the book, however, turns out different, because they cannot completely control either judge or jury.
- "The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln" includes a scene from Lincoln's legal career in which he found out in court that his client, bringing a lawsuit alleging failure to pay a debt, had in fact been paid but believed the defendant didn't have any proof of paying him. When the client, caught out, shamelessly admitted his lie, Lincoln at once arose and left the courtroom. When the judge sends a bailiff to Lincoln's hotel to retrieve him, Lincoln's Exact Words were (while sitting back with his feet on a stove);
Lincoln: Well, you go back and tell the judge I cannot come. Tell him I have to wash my hands.
- In Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, the main character's husband is a defense attorney who is so uncompromisingly moral that he only defends clients he knows to be innocent beforehand. He is, of course, flat broke.
- See Rumpole of the Bailey in Live-Action TV below - the books and Tv Series are remarkably similar.
- The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle includes a trial where the Doctor's old friend is falsely accused of murder. The attorney is a genial, jovial, nice guy, while the prosecutor is described as a "frowning, spluttering, long-nosed" quarrelsome individual.
- Perry Mason may be slightly Hand Waved because he doesn't like defending the guilty (c.f. "The Case of the Substitute Face").
- Matlock: Subverted at least once. And so he puts someone the client cares for on the stand, and all but accuses them of the murder, to make the client break down and confess.
- The Practice:
- A big point of the show was that the clients were often guilty. The whole premise was intended to be a subversion. On several occasions, they actually defended someone apparently innocent, then later realized their guilt midway through the trial.
- One episode featured Bobby Donnell being forced to provide a pro bono defense for an accused qualified rapist. He made it quite clear to the jury (despite the rule prohibiting lawyers from presenting their opinions) that he thinks his client is guilty and that he doesn't care about what happens to the client, but said that the jury must acquit because of the precedent a conviction based on the word of a kid who tells lies to get people's attention would create. The jury found the defendant not guilty.
- Law & Order: Trial by Jury intended to show the defense attorneys as well as the prosecutors, but they were depicted as mustache-twirlingly evil.
- On Shark, whenever James Woods finds out that he's prosecuting an innocent person, he stops until the police can find a more likely candidate.
- Very much averted on This is Wonderland. Since the show is mostly about plea court, bail court, and mental health court, the question of whether the client did it is usually a non-issue, and the court will be about deciding what to do with them. A fair few clients plainly deserve to have the book thrown at them (and usually do), while others are more sympathetic, and occasionally get let off altogether.
- Subverted on Rumpole of the Bailey. While it is true that almost all of Rumpole's clients that we see are in fact innocent of the crime they're on trial for, they are very frequently guilty of some other crime. This is particularly true of the Timsons, a clan of South London "minor villains" who make their living off of petty larceny and fencing, and whose fees seem to pay a fair chunk of Rumpole's own bills.
- At one point in the books, Rumpole offers a toast up to the world's criminals, without whom everyone at the Bailey would have to find another job. Most of the other lawyers respond awkwardly.
- We also don't see most of Rumpole's cases (the series being very irregular), of which he presumably loses a fair number. He also loses a few other cases that we do see.
- And finally, the one time Rumpole's client admits to him that she was guilty, he immediately says that he can't help her defense any longer and advises that she change her plea to guilty.
- This is usually played straight in The Rockford Files, but one episode subverts it. Throughout the entire episode, Beth Davenport is trying to clear her client on a murder charge while scared half to death by a stalker. It is theorized that the stalker is someone who is convinced of the guilt of her client, and wants her to be too distracted to possibly clear him. She clears him, but Jim discovers that not only was the client guilty, but he was also the stalker because he wanted to be able to request a mistrial if he was found guilty because his attorney was clearly distracted.
- Silk follows an entire chambers, so they can show trials from either side (and sometimes from both sides). Even so, it's fairly realistic about defending the probably-guilty and prosecuting the probably-innocent, and the ethical and moral dilemmas involved in both.
- Played with a few different ways in Boston Legal.
- Denny is often stated to have never lost a case. He, like others on the list, doesn't want to take the case of a guilty person (he wants to protect his perfect record, of course) and when a judge assigns him to defend a child rapist/murderer, Denny goes so far as to shoot his client in the leg to keep from taking the case.
- For Alan Shore, besides the fact that he does lose very occasionally, it seems as though more often than not, his clients are guilty, he's just so damn good at jury nullification that they get off anyway.
- And of course played super-straight with a lot of other characters. Even when taking totally ridiculous cases with no real basis in law, the lawyers of Crane, Pool and Schmidt tend to score at least moral victories (for instance, a judge might give them the win on ethical grounds, knowing full-well that the case will be dismissed at the next appeal).
- Averted in realistic fashion in Raising the Bar. The public defenders often have to defend obviously guilty and morally reprehensible people to best of their ability. Similarly, sometimes the prosecutors have to try to build obviously weak or shoddy cases.
- This is generally the case on JAG.
- This is played with on Suits. Most of the time the trope is averted because the firm specializes in corporate cases where it simply helps negotiate corporate mergers, clients, and business disputes that do not have an obvious "guilty" party. Other times an employee of the corporation is guilty but the CEO is unaware of what was done in the company's name and the lawyers quickly point out that the corporation is their actual client and not the guilty employee. This becomes subverted in the case of a Corrupt Corporate Executive that freely admits to her lawyers that she is guilty of the bribery charges and also a few other crimes that the prosecution does not know about. Harvey tries to defend her but in the end convinces her to take a plea bargain instead. The case then is double subverted when she is also charged with ordering six murders. Harvey builds his defense on the assumption that she is guilty but then discovers that she is innocent and has to change his whole strategy.
- Averted in Equal Justice. No one doubts Peter Bauer is a good guy, but he has to defend some very nasty people, including a completely unrepentant murderer and rapist whom he knows is guilty. justified as he's a public defender-they have no choice in their clients.
- Averted in The Good Wife: Alicia Florick is a good person, but a lot of her clients, including at least two of her repeat clients, are bad, especially Lemond Bishop, who is one of the leading drug traffickers in Chicago, and Colin Sweeney, who has murdered at least one woman.
- Kamen Rider Ryuki subverts this with the Amoral Attorney, Kitaoka. He's dedicated to maintaining his good lawyer status, but it doesn't mean that all of his clients were good. The only time this gets Double Subverted was when he decides to drop out of defending a serial killer, knowing he's not gonna win that case. Said serial killer would turn out to be his most fierce rival.
- Daredevil (2015): Nelson & Murdock zigzags this trope since Matt believes only in defending purely innocent people while Foggy believes "innocent" means "everyone not yet convicted of a crime".
- On the one hand, Matt decides to defend Karen Page despite her lack of money to pay them and her case being fairly open-and-shut because he knows from her heartrate that she's innocent.
- On the other hand, their first paying client is James Wesley, hiring them to defend one of Wilson Fisk's henchmen. While Foggy has reservations about defending the obviously guilty sociopath, Matt decides to do it for the substantial fee and to get a line into Fisk's organization.
- In season 2, they choose to help Grotto get protection from the Punisher, despite Grotto being a Kitchen Irish member, since Matt believes that he really does want a second chance. After Frank Castle makes Grotto admit in front of Matt to killing innocent people, he's absolutely horrified.
- It's revealed as season 1 progresses that Matt and Foggy chose to start up their own firm with this trope as the intended goal, rather than take a lucrative job offer with Landman & Zack, which would have had them working for the sorts of people for whom lawyers are their way of making legal problems disappear.
- Jean Loring in Arrow is a good lawyer, but the two people we see her defend are guilty of the crimes they're accused of (although in one case, that "crime" is "being a vigilante superhero", and it's the main character, so we're still meant to be on his side). In the case of Moira Queen, she doesn't try to claim Moira didn't do it but argues she was acting under duress. In Oliver's case, she tries to maintain plausible deniability, but eventually just flat out asks him "Are you the Green Arrow?" after acknowledging that "Did you do it?" is a question lawyers really aren't supposed to ask their clients.
- While Dr. Jason Bull isn't a lawyer (he's a psychologist), his best friend Benny Colón is. That said, Bull is in charge of TAC, and he usually makes sure any client he defends is innocent and any defendant he's asked to help prosecute is guilty. This is likely to put what he's doing in a positive light, as manipulating the justice system isn't generally seen as a good thing. One particular case involves patent infringement, where his client modified a pharmaceutical to make it more effective and was then sued by the corporation that owns the patent. In the end, both sides are shown in a positive light (a rare for a TV show, since Big Pharma is generally portrayed as a bad guy), and her former boss ends up dropping the lawsuit after having a face-to-face conversation and learning that her approach is something neither he nor his employees ever considered, deciding to give her credit for the modification.
- In Fiorello!, when Fiorello is practicing law in Greenwich Village, he and his subordinates know they're on the side of the angels, though Morris complains in the song of that title about his clients being "penniless and helpless, ignorant and scared."
- Every Ace Attorney game features this. The protagonists are all defense attorneys, and the clients they defend are nearly always innocent. While the occasional subversion does come up, it's rare. So rare, in fact, that the number of actually guilty clients that the lawyers are forced to defend can be counted on one hand. (And the few times it happens, they're also usually being blackmailed into it.)
- There's one case in which Phoenix Wright gets his client acquitted of a crime he didn't commit, but unknowingly gets him acquitted of several (non-violent) crimes that he did commit. And because of double jeopardy, he can't be tried again.
- Some clients are guilty of crimes other than murder, and they often get prosecuted for them afterward. Examples include Lana Skye in the first game (fabricating evidence with Gant and trying to cover up his murder, admittedly while being blackmailed) and Machi Tobaye and Vera Misham in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney (the former for cocoon smuggling and the latter for forging the diary page that got Phoenix disbarred).
- This is mostly justified for the series, for multiple reasons. Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena all hate taking guilty clients, and all three of them have different ways to tell if someone's hiding something from them. Combined this with the fact that the games are based on the Japanese Bench system, where 99% of all defendants were found guilty, and you have a pretty justified reason for the player to naturally trust that the client is wrongly accused.
- This is one of the major reasons why the real killer is usually shown in the opening to the first case in each game. It's so that players would automatically be on their client's side, knowing for sure they're wrongly accused. The only times in the series where the real killer isn't shown in the first case of the games is in the third and fourth games, both of which have Phoenix Wright himself as the defendant. People would obviously assume that the most important character of the series is innocent.
- This also makes sense in-universe, that the protagonists will get mostly innocent clients wanting their help, especially when Phoenix and Apollo become rather famous in the legal world as attorneys who seek the truth. Guilty clients naturally wouldn't want their defense: As soon as Phoenix/Apollo/Athena found out they were actually guilty, or so much as had an inkling they were, they'd be screwed.
- This is subverted in The Great Ace Attorney, wherein Ryunosuke realizes by the end of his trial that his defendant is very likely the monster the prosecution had been arguing he was from the start... and still gets him acquitted, provoking an existential crisis lasting until the fifth case of the game.
- Zigzagged in Daughter for Dessert. The supposedly corrupt prosecutors are representing the government, not Cecilia personally, and as for Saul, who represents the protagonist for free, his client actually did commit a crime (albeit not for an evil purpose), he engaged in a criminal conspiracy in order to exonerate his client on a technicality, and his motives for doing any of these things are unknown.
- In The Empty Turnabout, a fan-made Ace Attorney case:
- Subverted with Athena Cykes of all people, who actually killed Simon Blackquill but was acquitted by Apollo... even though he genuinely believed she was innocent.
- Zig-zagged with Nathaniel Marston, the current case's defendant. He confessed to the crime, but Apollo believes that he didn't do it. Fast forward to the end of the trial, and Marston is found guilty as he wanted. It's implied that he didn't really do it.
- Subverted in Knights of the Old Republic with the Sunry murder trial. Sunry insists he's innocent, one of the key bits of evidence was planted at the scene, and the Sith advocate is a complete jerk... but if you hack into the Republic's computer records, you can find a video showing that Sunry did kill the victim. Confronted about this, he confesses but refuses to plead guilty, leaving you to decide whether to continue to defend him (possibly involving handing over proof of the Sith having planted a key piece of evidence, apparently not realizing that Sunry actually was guilty) or hand the damning evidence over to the court.
- Exit Fate has Beau, the defense attorney hired to defend the protagonist when he stands trial for treason. Although the trial is, predictably, a farce with trumped-up accusations, fake evidence, and false testimonies, Beau does a very good job of defending Daniel with simple truth without resorting to dirty tactics. Later he proves his dedication by joining the Elysium Army as a playable character - he'll wear his lawyer's robes in the field, and his weapon of choice is a book of law.
- While this is often played straight in Aviary Attorney, it's cruelly averted in the very first case, not that our heroes have the slightest idea until the defendant smugly states it in the after-trial party and expresses shock and mockery that they were naive enough to believe this trope. In 4B (Égalité) the client isn't good but is at least on the amusing side of contemptible.
- Awkward Zombie lampshades the Ace Attorney series' use of this trope here. Athena asks Phoenix what his secret to winning so many cases is, but he tells her all she has to do is trust in her client. We then see an office memo with a list of Punny Names of potential clients, most of which are either Names to Run Away from Really Fast or otherwise suggest they're guilty. Phoenix is then seen offering his services to the lone exception, Mr. Inne Nocent.