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Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers

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"What is on Kobe's mind? Going to Colorado, around all these white people, and not bringing Johnnie Cochran? Well, then they say, 'Well, if you hire Johnnie Cochran, you're going to look guilty.' Yeah, but you going home! You want to look innocent in jail? I'd rather look guilty at the mall."
Chris Rock, talking about the 2003 Kobe Bryant sexual assault case, Never Scared

In crime dramas, when someone is arrested, they are read their Miranda Rights, "You have the right to remain silent.", "You have the right to an attorney.", etc. It seems, however, that all good, law-abiding citizens are willing to waive their rights and talk to the police without any qualms at all, but as soon as someone demands a lawyer, or refuses to talk without one, you know instantly that they are a sleazeball. Maybe not the one the police are actually seeking, but they are definitely someone of ill repute.

The dramatic explanation, of course, is that if every suspect would call in a lawyer, the wait for the professional would both kill the flow of the scene and the lawyer reading out a carefully crafted and Teflon-smooth statement would be far less interesting to watch than a little Perp Sweating to reveal the suspect has an entirely different reason to lie and Be as Unhelpful as Possible that has nothing to do with the Mystery of the Week but gives the detectives a new piece of the overall puzzle.

This has no bearing on Real Life. Any lawyer or law school professor will tell you that if you're arrested or the police think you committed a crime, you shouldn't talk to them except to say that you won't be answering questions and to ask for a lawyer (note that this doesn't mean that they're obligated to get you a lawyer — just that they can't interrogate you without one). In fiction, only one or two crimes ever happen at the same time, while in reality, there are a lot more. You may want to help the police catch a crook, but in doing so, you may accidentally implicate yourself in another crime, or the same crime.

Keep in mind, this may be especially true of someone who has committed no crime — a reasonable, innocent person tends to think that he or she can explain the situation logically and reason it out with the police, but this can get you in a lot of trouble. Police officers are human beings, which means they're susceptible to all the cognitive biases of human beings. If they already have a narrative in their heads as to how a crime went down, it's very easy for them to fit an innocent person's comments into that narrative — not out of maliciousness, but a simple desire to solve a case in as little effort or time as possible, even if they’re throwing seemingly innocent people in jail to do it. Most suspects never call their lawyers, regardless of whether they're guilty or innocent. Most suspects are also stupid.

Also, the police have no power to take you to the station without arresting you; if they ask you nicely to come to the station, you can politely refuse and leave at any time, unless they decide subsequently to arrest you (i.e. they must expressly state that you are under arrest, opening themselves to a false-arrest complaint if they have no legitimate justification for doing so). If you are talking to police for any reason such as if you're a witness to a crime, or if your lawyer has advised you to answer a question, do not ever lie (just say nothing) as that will not only make you look guilty, if you are speaking to a US Federal agent, lying is actually a crime in itself.

This is a Sub-Trope of Artistic License – Law. See also Be as Unhelpful as Possible, Don't Answer That. Also, the typical use of the One Phone Call.

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  • In his comedy special Never Scared, Chris Rock humorously criticizes Kobe Bryant for not getting a lawyer when he was accused of sexual harassment in 2003.
    Chris: What is on Kobe's mind? Going to Colorado, around all these white people, and not bringing Johnnie Cochran? Well, then they say, "Well if you hire Johnnie Cochran, you're going to look guilty." Yeah, but you going home! You want to look innocent in jail? I'd rather look guilty at the mall.
  • Tom Segura discusses the risks of applying this trope as outlined above while discussing the reality T.V. show The First 48:
    Tom: Here's what I've learned watching that show, okay? Lawyer. Up. You can't handle that shit. Everybody's like "I'm gonna talk to the cops and straighten this whole thing out!" You're gonna do 25 to life, have fun with that, man. Nobody asks for a lawyer. I've seen three-hundred people get interrogated on this show; two of them were like "Can I talk to a lawyer?" and both times the detectives were like "Fuck!"

    Comic Books 
  • Completely defied in Powers when Detective Pilgrim is being questioned by Internal Affairs. As soon as she realizes how serious the investigation is, she asks for a lawyer (being a cop of course means how aware she is of how this sort of situation works). The internal affairs investigator tries to imply this trope, roughly saying "You know what they say about people who insist on getting their lawyer..." to which Pilgrim responds "Yeah. They say that those people are smart."

    Films — Live-Action 

  • In Crescendo, when Scott is arrested for breaking into Nora's house (granted, after she stole something from him and refused to return it), and the cop who arrests him says that Scott sounds guilty because he asks for a lawyer. Apparently angels posing as detectives don't fuss too much with mortal laws.
  • A lampshaded aversion in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon: Randy “wondered whether it would be a bad idea, from a narrowly tactical standpoint, to ask for a lawyer so soon” after customs discover the drugs that were planted in his luggage.
  • Invoked and inverted in the second The Dark Tower book. Eddie has been detained on suspicion of drug smuggling (of which he is, in fact, guilty). After a lengthy interrogation, he threatens to get his lawyer involved. One of the interrogators invokes the trope directly. Eddie inverts it by admitting that he doesn't currently have a lawyer but will be retaining one as soon as he's released.
  • Dead End Job Mysteries: More than once in the series, Helen or a friend or coworker of hers wants to call their lawyer (and they do), and the police immediately claim this as reason to be suspicious of them. Book 7 has a very specific lawyer show up to help Helen (who's been accused of murdering her ex-husband Rob after he faked his own murder to get away from his new "wife", who'd sent the lawyer in question), and the cops make it clear that they consider this particular lawyer arriving to be proof positive of Helen's guilt, due to his reputation for defending the obviously guilty.
  • The Demolished Man: The murderer Ben Reich calls his lawyer the instant the body is discovered at the party he's attending. The detective tells him openly that the fact that he's the only guest to call his lawyer immediately makes him the prime suspect.
  • Semi-played straight in Discworld in general, but rather justified given the corrupt pre-Victorian justice system. In this case it's sort of a correlation =/= causation thing; the bad guys who ask for lawyers aren't asking for lawyers because they're bad guys, they're asking for lawyers because they have a tendency to be rich and think of themselves as above the law anyway, and they're usually asking for Mr. Slant, who is well known to be morally dubious at best anyway. Poor criminals have a tendency to not trust lawyers any more than Vimes does (of course, they also tend to be repeat offenders of much more minor crimes, with whom the Watch has an almost friendly relationship and not the actual bad guys). It also helps that if you're an innocent man, Commander Vimes genuinely is your best hope in the world of going free. Insomuch as an Aesop can be gleaned from Discworld, it seems to be that "if you're rich enough to afford a lawyer to begin with, you're that much more likely to be enough of a scumbag to abuse the privilege".
    • And when William de Worse ask for Slant, it's to protect his family's 'good name': yes, his father was a part of the plot, but his siblings and mother don't need to be taken down with him. Vimes is pissed off to no end, but also seems pretty sure that William himself had no part in anything that happened (and is only a person of interest since he can name names).
  • Nick in Gone Girl is smart enough to know about this, and holds off on getting a lawyer, even when he's the main suspect for a murder he did not commit, specifically because of it, and then when he does get a lawyer, he gets one known for defending extremely guilty dirtbags.
  • In David Simon's nonfiction work Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, upon which the TV series of the same name is based, the trope is deconstructed. The police's main tactic in solving cases boils down to: convince the perp not to call his lawyer, then lie to him about the evidence you don't have, and threaten him with a hardass prosecutor if he doesn't confess. At one point, a notably stupid suspect is convinced that beating a woman into unconsciousness and raping her was okay because he didn't strike the fatal blow, even thinkingnote  that he'll get a ride home. The police derive immense satisfaction from his crestfallen demeanor when the penny drops. Unfortunately, as good as this tactic is for putting down the low-level drug murders that make up the shift's bread-and-butter, it doesn't work a damn on the real players, who know exactly what to do. It's probably also worth noting it's a great way to get innocent people to confess to crimes they didn't commit.
    Interrogator: (sits down) Anything to say this time, Dennis?
    Perp: No sir, just want my lawyer.
    Interrogator: Fine, Dennis. (leaves)
  • In The Westing Game, after Turtle sets off a bomb in an elevator, her mother tries to get her to profess her innocence. Turtle saying "I want a lawyer" is treated as all that needs to be said to seal any doubts on her guilt. Zigzagged in that while she did set off that particular bomb, she wasn't responsible for the others. Her sister, Angela, set them off, and Turtle took the blame for them. Further subverted in that when Judge Ford talks to Turtle, after the explosion, she figures out pretty quickly that Turtle was covering for Angela, and thus just lets her off with a warning.

  • Lampshaded in Margin for Error. When Horst refuses to answer any of Moe's questions until he contacts his lawyer, Denny remarks, "Exactly the tone a guilty man takes." Horst gets indignant and insists on his legal rights.

    Video Games 
  • Deliberately used as a Red Herring in one of the Eagle Eye Mysteries challenge cases where one of the suspects is uncooperative and demands a lawyer. If you accuse her of the crime, her careful explanation of innocence assumes that you did so primarily because of that reason.
  • Henry Stickmin Series: One of the three routes in Escaping the Prison begins with Villain Protagonist Henry using a cell phone to call his lawyer (a Captain Ersatz of Phoenix Wright), who has to get him acquitted of the charges brought against him. Successfully doing so nets you the "Lawyered Up" ending.
  • MadWorld: When Jack confronts Leo Fallmont, the mastermind behind the Deathwatch games, he tries to ask for a lawyer. Jack chainsaws him off a skyscraper.
  • In Mass Effect 2, at least half of Elias Kelham's dialogue when you have him arrested consists of "I want to see my lawyer." The other half consists of "Come on, hit me. I dare you." On the other hand, informing that you are a Spectre, and therefore do not have to give him a lawyer, will cause him to talk immediately. Either way, going into the interrogation you do actually immediately know that Kelham is a crime boss and that he's already ordered an assassination, so calling for the lawyer is not, itself, treated as a flashing sign that he's a bad guy.
  • Averted in Who's Lila?, where the true killer of Tanya Kennedy, the titular Lila, is perfectly willing to talk to the police without a lawyer, confident that they can smooth talk their way out of it. Whether the culprit succeeds depends on the player's actions.

    Visual Novels 
  • Ace Attorney:
    • Inverted for Wright and co., who all defend the wrongly accused, and (for the most part) never defend the guilty party. On the other hand, quite a few people buy into the belief that defense attorneys are sleazeballs who only keep criminals out of jail.
    • Justified Trope in two ways. In Phoenix Wright? EVERYONE is considered guilty until proven innocent...and both Phoenix and Apollo have limited mind-reading capabilities.
    • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice:
      • Played straight where when the legal right to a certain artifact comes under question, the plaintiff, Paul Atishon sues Apollo's client with the best lawyer money can buy: Phoenix Wright. When suspicion comes onto Paul for the murder of Archie Buff he asks if he can see his lawyer, except his lawyer resigned only a few minutes prior.
      • In the epilogue, the Big Bad is looking for a lawyer to represent them... after they tried to make a law that banned all lawyers in their country. Even the sleaziest lawyer isn't going to respect that level of petty hypocrisy.
    • The Great Ace Attorney gives a reverse example, wherein Ryunosuke admits it's quite sketchy his extremely wealthy client, Magnus McGilded, can't find a lawyer and must rely on a public defender such as himself. McGilded asserts it's the fault of the prosecutor's reputation rather than his obvious guilt. They're both right—McGilded did commit the murder, but the reason no one will take his case is instead because every defendant Barok van Zieks has failed to convict dies a grisly death shortly thereafter, and no defense lawyer wants that blood on their hands.

    Web Comics 
  • In Blood And Smoke, Carson's partner evokes this trope during a conversation. Turns out the trope is averted as the suspect discussed isn't guilty.
  • Darths & Droids has a succinct explanation of why this should be averted. Also applies as A Fool for a Client:
    A trial is a contest of Law skills between the prosecution and the defence. Most people will hire a lawyer and make use of their Law skill. Do you really want to defend yourself and use Law at the default skill level?
  • Schlock Mercenary. Played for Black Comedy when Schlock is accused of a murder and demands a lawyer, whom he promptly eats in front of the horrified police. "I wanted a snack."note  Schlock is actually innocent of the murder he's been accused of (not that the mercenaries aren't guilty of a lot of other crimes, including murder) and his next lawyer (this one a member of his mercenary unit) tries in vain to get him to shut up while being interrogated.

    Western Animation 
  • Parodied in the Lilo & Stitch: The Series episode "Holio", in a scene where Lilo pretends to have been arrested:
    Lilo: [behind bars at Kokaua Town's jail] I know my rights! I demand a lawyer!
    Officer Kaihiko: Lilo, you're not under arrest. Come out of there before someone sees you.
    Lilo: Not until I get my One Phone Call.


Video Example(s):


Giving the Federation a Bell

Tony gets ambushed by Deakin and Huxtable, two officers from the Complaints Investigation Bureau who want to have an off-the-record chat about a potential investigation into Tony's station. Deakin and Huxtable convince him that it would be a bad idea for him to notify his Federation rep about their slightly underhanded manner of approaching him.

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Main / OnlyBadGuysCallTheirLawyers

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