Legal Eagles: Television’s Top Lawyers

The courtroom drama is a time-honored TV genre with origins reaching back to the 1940s. The legal world is a natural fit for the TV screen. The stakes are high-even life or death; persuasion is as much about charisma as evidence, and the monologue is king. Here’s a list of the top three legal eagles in the history of television.

Ally McBeal

Ally McBeal had a short but sweet five year run from 1997 to 2002. Calist Flockhart played the eponymous main character, a quirky and quixotic young attorney at the Boston firm of Cage & Fish. The show really employs the legal profession as a backdrop more than a plot device, as most of the drama centers around the turbulent and tempestuous, interpersonal relationships at the firm. The lawyers of Cage & Fish are eccentric, flirtatious, and even a little libertine (looking at you, Fish). Their professional exploits are often used to juxtapose their personal misadventures. Some critics derided the show for being unrealistic and over-relying on slapstick gags. The character of Ally McBeal specifically drew criticism from a feminist perspective for the way it portrayed professional women. But while Ally could be flighty and emotionally volatile, she was also a caring friend and an imaginative soul. For a profession that is too often cast as calculating and heartless, Ally McBeal offered a human side.

Jack McCoy

It’s hard to pick just one standout from all the great lawyers that have been on Law & Order over the years. The show was pretty much the standard bearer for both cop shows and courtroom dramas for two decades. It also spawned a half dozen spin-offs, and even a few video games. It ended its run in 2010 but is still syndicated on multiple channels, every day of the week, all over the world. For 16 of the show’s 20 seasons, Sam Waterston played Jack McCoy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Jack McCoy had a brilliant legal mind, but it was his dogged pursuit of justice (though not always according to the letter of the law) that drove his success. Waterston has appeared in the second most episodes of any Law & Order cast member (behind only S. Epatha Merkerson). His performance on the show even earned him the status of “Living Landmark” from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Perry Mason

The grand-daddy of them all, Perry Mason, is an iconic American television show. It might not have invented the courtroom drama, but it perfected it. Raymond Burr played the title character, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney who sparred with the District Attorney’s office on behalf of accused men and women. It helped that almost all of his clients were innocent, as Mason often dramatically proved by revealing the true guilty party. Burr played the role of the infamous litigator for nine seasons and then 26 additional made-for-TV movies. Along the way, he inspired a generation of lawyers to test their mental and moral mettle in the courtroom.

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