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.
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. Put simply, a tax lawyer is not the guy you want handling your slip-and-fall case.
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 in a pinch (e.g. you just got arrested and he's literally the only lawyer you know), he certainly understands more about the mechanisms of the legal process than an elementary school teacher or taxidermist, which is why he has a law license. Likewise, and depending on the situation, a client of little means may gratefully accept any lawyer willing to take his case, since any sort of representation is likely to be better than nothing.
Still, when it comes to dealing with the important, nitty-gritty details of your case, you will want an attorney with specialized experience if you have any choice in the matter.
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. Sister Trope to Omnidisciplinary Scientist and Do-Anything Soldier.
- 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.
- What tends to vary from volume to volume is whether Jen is one of the best superhero lawyers, or one of the only ones. In some versions, her entire firm is occupied with superhero law, while in others, she's employed at a more prosaic firm where the senior partners expect her to attract superhero business (and she's been fired for failing to do so).
- Iron Man: 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.
- Flash-forward to the modern day: Matt Murdock has given up defense to work for the NYC District Attorney. Perhaps because this happened under the watch of Charles Soule, a man who practices law as well as writing comics, the switch to prosecution is treated as a deal at least as big as Murdock regaining his secret identity. (Though only the latter change gets a super-powered explanation.)
- Averted and lampshaded in Ghostbusters II. As noted in the page quote, Louis Tully specifically warns the main quartet that he doesn't know criminal law. Sure enough, he botches the defense and the judge rules against them. It's only the timely appearance of ghosts (thereby proving to the disbelieving judge that ghosts are real) that get the Ghostbusters off the hook. To his credit, Tully does help play legal hardball at that moment to force the judge to rescind the restraining order. Interestingly, in the previous movie he was actually an accountant (hence why his legal focus is on tax law), so he actually is at least multi-disciplinary (especially since he later on becomes a Ghostbuster...sort of).
- Daredevil: The film version of Nelson & Murdock is all over the place, with Matt at one point being a prosecutor and a civil lawyer. Somewhat justified—their practice represents people who can't afford legal representation (which means they are also perpetually broke) so possibly they handle anything and everything they can get away with both because they help the helpless and because they are just that strapped for cash. The most egregious example is where he is questioning rapist Jose Quesada and acting like a prosecutor, even though he is technically a defense attorney and is speaking for his client (there are certain ways this could happen—if she was suing him in tort for instance—but the scene itself is just vague on details).
- Discussed and ultimately averted in the Australian movie The Castle - the main character wants his small-town local lawyer to work on a constitutional law case despite his pleas that he doesn't know anything about it. And indeed that's held up - the guy is useless in every trial we see him in (the best argument he can come up with is 'It's in the Constitution, it's just... it's the vibe.'), and the protagonist only wins in the end because they manage to get an actual Queen's Counsel who specialises in constitutional law onto their side.
- Averted is in the 1992 TV movie To Catch A Killer. The police are searching the home of local businessman (and Serial Killer) John Wayne Gacy.
Gacy: Can they do that?
Lawyer: (uncertain) Ah...I think so...
Gacy: (furious) What am I paying you for?!
Lawyer: To handle your business affairs!
- Subverted in My Cousin Vinny as the titular cousin is a Personal Injury lawyer who gets called on for a murder trial. He goes through with it anyway (not without complaints) and he still had to fool the judge into thinking he was experienced enough for the trial despite being a completely new attorney.
- Averted in Michael Clayton. The title character's specialty at his firm is using his contacts and experience from his past as a prosecutor to mitigate occasional problems with the criminal-justice system the firm's corporate clients have that the other lawyers would be incapable of handling.
- Bridge of Spies has James Donovan, who has worked as a war crime prosecutor, insurance lawyer, and foreign relations negotiator. Did we mention it's a biopic?
- 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.
- Justified in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus spends the story defending Tom Robinson for murder despite the fact that he's not a criminal defense attorney, and he's mentioned having difficulty with the case because of his lack of experience. But Atticus is one of a very small number of lawyers in the rural community and naturally has to generalize his practice of law to meet the needs of his clients. He's also one of the least-prejudiced and most-respected people in town, and thus one of the few people the local sheriff thinks can give Tom Robinson a fair trial.
- The Good Wife:
- The main cast at Lockhart/Gardner and eventually Florrick/Agos have done 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. Also, when they need to be interrogated or stand trial, once in a blue moon, they get someone else to represent them.
- Another variation of this occurs in any episode involving capital punishment, since there is no death penalty in Illinois, the state the show is set innote , the death penalty case episodes are set in Indiana. But a legal license only permits an attorney to practice in the state it's issued in. It doesn't necessarily go without saying that all the main cast have current Indiana law licenses. That said, it is common for Illinois lawyers to have Indiana licenses, especially in the Chicago area, since the six counties in northwestern Indiana are part of the Chicago suburbs, and it is fairly easy for an attorney who has been admitted in Illinois and practicing there for several years to get an Indiana license (all it takes is some money and attending a seminar). It's also possible for an out of state lawyer to be admitted on a one-time basis (called pro hac vice) in a case.
- 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 firm's 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.
- Averted with Xander who is a very successful lawyer specializing in a very narrow area of technology law. When Louis, specializing in financial transactions law, goes against Xander in a technology law case, Xander demolishes Louis in their first court appearance due to his superior knowledge of the subject matter. Louis has to do a ton of research and reading up on case law before he finds a precedent that swings the case back in his favor.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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...
- Modern Family:
- In the 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.
- Although, he does his best to get out of it, pointing out that he is not in fact a defense attorney. And he seems mainly to win because the judge is too tired to deal with his Courtroom Antics anymore.
- Subverted in a later episode where Haley gets arrested and Claire calls Mitch in a panic to help them out in case they need a lawyer. He protests that as an environmental lawyer he can't do very much and is shown to be out of his depth when it's revealed Haley was arrested for resisting arrest and assaulting a cop.
- 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."
- In Season 1 of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty realizes that he's in danger of missing a hearing regarding his divorce, after an incident where he lost track of his kids after he sent them tailing Stringer Bell. He grabs the nearest lawyer he can (prosecutor Rhonda Pearlman, who is working together with the Barksdale detail McNulty is responsible for creating) and runs for the courthouse. Once inside the courthouse, the trope is subverted and deconstructed; Rhonda spends her professional life prosecuting drug dealers and other criminals and is rather clueless about divorce law and what to do at the hearing. She even says as much to the judge at one point when the judge voices surprise that Rhonda isn't objecting to the actions and assertions of Elena's lawyer.
- Century City generally did a pretty good job of averting this; the law firm took on a large variety of mostly civil cases, but the cast all specialised in different areas and would therefore get A Day in the Limelight by turns. One episode even sort-of lampshaded it when Ioan Grufford's character explained to a potential client who works in real estate that he specialises in criminal defence rather than property law and he might need to speak to someone from another department, but it turns out that said client needed defence counsel after getting arrested for breaking into his ex's apartment.
- Daredevil: Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson primarily practice criminal law, although in the season 2 premiere, at least one of the clients in their reception room is dealing with denied working papers (a civil issue), the tenement dispute in season 1 between Wilson Fisk's cronies and Elena Cardenas is a blur of civil and criminal issues, and a flashback to their internship at Landman & Zack shows them participating in a civil lawsuit. Justified in this case: for one, they cater to working-class people in Hell's Kitchen who can't afford the higher prices of firms like Hogarth Chao & Benowitz, and two, as the firm's staff is composed of just Matt, Foggy, and Karen, it qualifies as a General Practice.
- Jessica Jones: Jeri Hogarth primarily deals in criminal law when it comes to Jessica's cases, but a scene in season 1 also shows her being involved in patent law, among others. In an aversion, Hogarth Chao & Benowitz in general does seem to handle all sorts of things, with different lawyers for different fields. During his time at the firm in between Daredevil seasons 2 and 3, Foggy has primarily been seen dealing with Luke Cage's matters,note both of which are criminal in nature. Desmond Tobey is a divorce lawyer, who helps Jeri deal with her Divorce Assets Conflict with Wendy in season 1. It's unclear what field Marci Stahl primarily dealt with in her time at the firm between Wilson Fisk's arrest and just before the start of Daredevil season 3, but she was probably involved in criminal law as well as some civil disputes and cases like those that she did at Landman & Zack.
- Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul: Jimmy McGill / Saul Goodman seems to be a general practitioner. He primarily is a criminal lawyer, but before becoming Saul, he takes a stab at elder law, then brushes up on contract law prior to getting fired from Davis & Main, and even when dabbling in those other attempts to go legit, Jimmy still helps out criminals like Mike Ehrmantraut and Nacho Varga.
- Robert Liebling in Liebling Kreuzberg surely takes cases from a broad range of fields.
- 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.
- Some episodes heavily imply that he hasn't even passed the bar exam.
- 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.
- Many attorneys are General Practice or Door Lawyers ("whoever comes through the door") and are not specialized. This is more common in smaller firms, where there isn't the manpower to have attorneys be limited to particular areas of practice.
- Princess Diana of England was so impressed with how Anthony Julius handled a libel case for her that she later hired him to handle her divorce as well. The story goes that when Julius tried to tell her he was a libel attorney and this would be his first divorce case, Diana replied, "That's all right, this will be my first divorce."