Studying the Law Through TV

When Abraham Lincoln was a young man, it was possible to study the law and become a lawyer without going to law school. While apprenticing oneself to a lawyer in order to become a practicing attorney is no longer fashionable, it’s still possible to study the law without setting foot in a law school.

Thanks to writers such as Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason , and TV producers such as Dick Wolf, the mastermind behind Law and Order, Law and Order / Special Victims Unit, and Law and Order / Criminal Intent, the general public can acquire a basic education in the principles and practices of the law simply by reading novels and/or watching TV shows. Steven Bocho’s L.A. Law in the 1980s was another series which contributed to the knowledge of the public at large when it came to knowing more about the law.

While such popular fare alone isn’t sufficient to give anyone a comprehensive legal education, it certainly serves to provide a solid foundation on which to build an understanding of how the legal system in the U.S. works. In contrast to the legal systems found, for example, on the European continent, the U.S. system is an adversarial system. In short, it’s a competition to see which side–prosecution or defense–puts on a stronger case and wins the case.

Thus, it’s entirely possible for a person who has actually committed a crime to be brought to trial and then set free, if the defense attorney manages to thwart the presentation of the prosecution’s case and present evidence favorable to the defendant. Much of the behind-the-scenes drudgery (e.g. drafting, submitting and reviewing interrogatories, etc.) of legal work is rarely shown on TV shows, of course, since it has little, if any , dramatic value. What attracts viewers and holds their attention are dramatic scenes which usually take place in a courtroom between opposing counsel.

During the course of the action, viewers hear references to such things as interrogatories, depositions, legal precedents, etc., but not much time is spent on them. Rather, novelists (such as Gardner) or TV producers (such as Bocho or Wolf) have their lead characters dressed professionally and primed to question witnesses on the witness stand or object to actions taken by opposing counsel.

However, one of the most fascinating aspects of the early episodes of Law and Order , when Michael Moriarity played the Executive Assistant District Attorney Ben Stone, was his discussions with associates about the best theory of the law to present in prosecuting a case. At times, he even found himself changing his theory in the middle of a case, if circumstances warranted.

Often criminal prosecutions lead to civil actions and vice versa. As this type of information comes to the fore, it is possible for viewers to learn that (1) the U.S. legal system consists of two main types of proceedings–criminal and civil; (2) the law has a procedural component (rules and regulations to be followed, especially when it comes to the gathering and submission of evidence, for example) and a substantive one (i.e. the identification of causes of action, parties which have standing to bring a cause of action, etc.); and (3) decisions in lower courts can be appealed to higher courts.

While Perry Mason, both in Gardner’s novels and on the TV show starring Raymond Burr, was quite clever in doing the equivalent of pulling rabbits out of a hat, in order to help his clients, most real-life attorneys do not employ such tactics. However, they can be very shrewd and crafty, manipulating people and events to the advantage of their clients. Just think of how Arnie Becker (on L.A. Law ) operated in handling the myriad divorce cases which made up his legal practice.

Suffice it to say that there is indeed a difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Anyone needing legal representation will be smart enough, especially after having watched shows such as Perry Mason , L.A. Law , or Law and Order, to choose a lawyer who knows the difference between the two.

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