The Truth in Legal Fiction


Pop culture’s obsession with the law—thrillers, procedurals, dramas—has both inspired and infuriated Fordham Law alumni. Here’s what they love and loathe about the law-related novels, television shows, and movies that capture the nation’s attention.

During her confirmation hearing to become a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor acknowledged that one of the unexpected influences on her decision to pursue law was an episode of the long-running courtroom drama Perry Mason. She specifically recalled one episode when a prosecutor told Mason, a defense attorney, “My job as a prosecutor is to do justice, and justice is served when a guilty man is convicted and an innocent man is not.”

Perry Mason

Raymond Burr on the set of Perry Mason

The truth and importance of that idea stuck with Sotomayor as she climbed the ladder in her legal career—even if other episodes and plot points within the show played fast and loose with legal nuances.

Sotomayor is not alone. Plenty of the country’s finest legal minds have first discovered their love of the law through novels, television shows, and movies, and many continue to devour the latest legal pop culture media. And while the reality of a legal career might clash with the fast-moving, clear-cut storylines found in the stories we read and watch, there’s often a deeper reason that they resonate.

For this story, we talked to a handful of Fordham alumni about the law-related books, television shows, and movies that have resonated with them over the years—as well as the ones that drive them up a wall. They shared what characters and plots got right, what they got wrong, and the deeper truths about the legal world that these stories contain.

Name:John Owens, Jr.
John Owens, Jr. ’04

Title: Principal Law Clerk in the New York State Unified Court

It was easy to get inspired by: The Practice, the Dylan McDermott-helmed drama about work in a Boston law firm that ran in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “The show often dealt with the conflict that arises when legal ethics violate moral ethics,” Owens recalls. “I loved Steve Harris’ Eugene Young, who was the moral compass of the show.”

And there was a movie that stuck the landing, too: In addition to a handful of Oscar nominations and the still-inescapable Jack Nicholson line “You can’t handle the truth!” A Few Good Men effectively illuminated the emotion of advocating for a client—and illustrated how a verdict in a client’s favor is not the same as “winning,” says Owens.

But his love-hate relationship will always be with: Law & Order.
“As a former assistant district attorney, I love the show’s focus on the work of prosecutors,” Owens says, “but I still find myself shouting at the TV any time they depict the New York County Courthouse as a criminal courthouse. It’s a lie!”

Veronica EscobarName:
Veronica Escobar ’03

Title: Principal and Owner, Law Offices of Veronica Escobar

The truth is duller than fiction? “TV shows and movies typically only show the parts they consider ‘exciting’—being in a courtroom, making arguments, the ‘gotcha’ moment on the witness stand, or the thrill of the trial. But a lawyer’s work requires a lot of drafting and motion work—there’s a certain level of monotony and routine,” says Escobar.

Except when it’s not. Plenty of shows get sullied by impossible-to-believe twists or legal maneuvers that simply couldn’t happen. That said, Escobar notes that there are also shows that showcase the truly artful and brilliantly strategic work that lawyers do—and the very human emotions that drive the people in every case. “The original Law & Order and SVU demonstrate the thinking and creativity behind the prosecution’s theory of the case, and especially the defense strategy,” Escobar says. “They drive home something central to the law: Sometimes you win, sometimes you take what justice you can get based on the cards you’ve been dealt as a lawyer, and sometimes you don’t get justice—that’s how the law really is. It’s not a science, and there is no certainty.” The best shows, she says, demonstrate the enormous responsibility and weight that come with being an attorney.

And enough with the constant villainizing, already: Lawyers are often portrayed as money-hungry and corrupt—but Escobar says the real ratio of bad lawyers to good ones isn’t nearly as terrible as shows would have you believe. “For every bad apple in the profession, I could name 70 good ones,” she says.

Name:Matthew McGough
Matthew McGough ’01

Title: Author, Journalist, and Screenwriter

An assigned film from one Fordham Law class got his creative juices flowing: Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, a courtroom drama about a medical malpractice case. “The way the film realistically depicted the life of a single case and all the stakeholders and human drama therein made a big impression on me at the time,” he says.

Since then, legal fiction has been a big part of his life. As a legal consultant and staff writer for Law & Order from 2006 to 2010, McGough has an insider’s perspective in more than one way. “Serving as legal consultant meant advising the show’s writers about courtroom procedure and legal strategies the characters might employ,” he says. “It also entailed reading a lot of scripts, which taught me how to write screenplays myself. What I most enjoyed about the opportunity to write for Law & Order was that the city was its own character throughout the run of the show.”

And he still relies on his legal education all the time in his writing. “Law school taught me how to do research, how to frame an argument, and that there are two sides to every story,” he says. “Although I’m not a practicing attorney, when I’m in court reporting on a case, it feels like I speak the local language. I’m not intimidated by courthouses and love navigating them in pursuit of a story.”

He’s also been inspired by: The HBO series The Wire and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. “Both expanded my sense of how to tell powerful stories grounded in reality and the daily grind of people involved in the criminal justice system,” he says.

Brenda GillName:
Brenda L. Gill ’95

Title: Deputy General Counsel at Sandata Technologies, and leads the Fordham Alumni Attorneys of Color affinity group

She finally jumped on the law show bandwagon with: Suits. “My mom told me it was good, but 99 times out of 100, these shows are about litigators. As a corporate lawyer, that’s not my life.” But Suits was different, focusing on life at a corporate firm.

She loves the interaction among the lawyers on the show because: The cutthroat ambition and competitiveness that mark life at a big law firm are portrayed with unflinching accuracy. In the past particularly, partners were often both brilliant—and insensitive. “In the show, when an associate said, ‘I’m going to go home early because my wife just had a baby,’ the partner says, ‘Congratulations, but you still have to work over the weekend.’ That’s not dramatic license— that’s actually what would happen, and anybody who’s been in a dog-eat-dog firm can relate to that. Hopefully, that old culture has changed.”

The unsung heroes of a big law firm also get plenty of screen time: Lawyers aren’t the only ones who fit into the power structure of a law firm, which Suits illustrates effectively. “Admins are the gate-keepers who know all the inside dirt. The show really portrays how they function and the secret pool of information and power that they wield. Junior associates who want to understand how to help a managing partner— and get ahead—talk to the admins. They can tell you not to see the partner in the morning, because she needs two cups of coffee first, or exactly how they like their contracts. And if you treat them poorly, you do so at your own risk. They’ll block you. It happens in the show, and it happens in real life.”

Name:Eliza Boggia
Eliza Boggia ’14

Title: Associate at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP

A serious legal drama that could benefit from a bit more authenticity: Boggia enjoys the TV series Suits but acknowledges that it has some unrealistic aspects. Harvey and Mike, the main characters, practice in a vast array of legal fields. “They are doing mergers and acquisitions one minute, criminal cases the next. Then all of a sudden, they are experts in every field of the law, which is obviously not accurate,” she says. “In the real world, you are typically either a transactional lawyer or a litigator, and then from there most will go on to subspecialize.”

And a not-so-serious movie that makes her laugh: Legally Blonde, a fun-loving, feel-good movie that has popularized attending law school and becoming a lawyer. “It created more space for women to be both fabulously fashionable and legal powerhouses, and I certainly can appreciate that.”

Lately, she’s been getting into a few nonfiction pieces whose accuracy is more on point.
Of particular interest is Serial, an award-winning investigative journalism podcast that narrates a story involving the justice system over multiple episodes each season. Boggia highly recommends it. “It highlights very well many of the injustices still present in the legal system today.”

The actress who would portray her on the big screen: Gal Gadot. “She’s what I like to call a velvet hammer—she’s polished, and she’s a class act, but she’s extraordinarily powerful and effective when need be, which is what I strive to be.”

Drew ValentineName:
Drew Valentine ’93

Title: Vice President of People and Culture at IBM

The movie that inspired his interest in the law was: To Kill A Mockingbird.

It was a difficult movie to watch because: It centered on a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. “It was scary [to watch]for a young black kid, but I remember it clearly,” Valentine says. “I loved the fact that the lawyer used questions to try to get to the truth, even with so much emotion stacked against him. I still love it. Atticus is a flawed hero, but a hero all the same. He had very high integrity and forced [others to confront]the uncomfortable truth.”

He’s grown more skeptical of the portrayal of: The gallery during proceedings. “There were frequent cuts to the gallery and lots of audible chatter. Most trials are very boring—and the gallery doesn’t have as much influence on the proceedings,” he says.

These days, he’d like to see less: Stereotypical representation in television shows and movies. “The rich lawyers always seem to be shady or tough, and only the sole practitioners or public advocates are heroes. All lawyers aren’t sleazy or poor freedom fighters.”

And we could all benefit from a few more: Women and underrepresented minorities in positive roles. “Of course, that’s a Hollywood problem,” he says.

Name:Maraiya Hakeem
Maraiya Hakeem ’17

Title: Corporate Associate at Pryor Cashman

It was impossible not to love: Living Single. “Living Single’s Maxine Shaw was a character who made practicing law look chic, fun, manageable, and attainable for young women of color,” she says.

Even though the real- ism is, in retrospect, almost utterly absent. “Maxine somehow always had a lot of free time to lounge around—to the hilarious dismay of the show’s other characters— and rarely missed parties, outings, or gatherings with her friends and family,” she says. “While the character was impeccably—and comically—portrayed, it was a highly unrealistic representation of the life of a litigator.”

These days, she can’t get enough of the even more unrealistic: How to Get Away with Murder. The casting is excellent, and the story lines are very entertaining, Hakeem says, even if some of those stories are borderline ridiculous. “What the show initially got wrong was setting the scene in a Criminal Law class. More realistically, the work would have been better suited for upper-level law students participating in a law clinic, which does finally happen in later seasons. Of course, these details seem less ridiculous when you consider that umpteen laws are broken in practically every episode, yet no characters have been disbarred, expelled from law school, or jailed.”

What the show has done better with in recent seasons: Introducing the character of Tegan Price and the fictitious law firm Caplan & Gold into the plot. “Most law shows focus exclusively on litigation attorneys, and this story line gives audiences more visibility—albeit still sensationalized—into the lives of transactional attorneys,” Hakeem says.

Henry KlingemanName:
Henry Klingeman ’91

Title: Partner and Owner at Krovatin Klingeman LLC

He loved the dazzle of: L.A. Law. “I was taken with how exciting the practice of law appeared to be at a private law firm, when the usual lawyer/crime shows focused on the DA’s office,” he says.

And the ratings weren’t hurt by: Plotlines that frequently included romantic entanglements among the most gorgeous and glamorous of that legal world. In the real world, Klingeman notes, such interactions are far more chaste.

The show’s influence can still be seen today:L.A. Law inspired a generation of law students and lawyers to adopt a less formal, more direct approach to practicing law,” he says.

If you want a more accurate view of the law, try: “Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer books. They present a genuine and realistic look at how criminal defense really works.”


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