Three actors that played lawyers on TV and movies

SPILL: Lights, Camera, Legal Action! Favourite On-Screen Lawyers

  • August 28, 2019
  • Emily Sinkins

From the awe-inspiring to the outrageous, lawyers in movies and television are among the most memorable and iconic characters in popular culture. We asked the legal community which on-screen lawyers they love to watch the most – and they came up with an eclectic cast of legal luminaries who are as entertaining as they are artful in the practice of law.

The Good Wife, The Good Fight, The Great Women Lawyers of TV

Glowing reviews of Julianna Margulies’s turn as Alicia Florrick in television’s The Good Wife come from Tahir Khorasanee, LL.M., associate lawyer, Wakelin & Associates, and Cassandra Ma, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP.  Comments Ma, “In addition to being a strong female protagonist, Alicia embodies many qualities that a successful lawyer should have: intelligence, diligence, and fierce tenacity. She is a zealous advocate who remains calm under pressure and empathizes with her clients. She refuses to allow others to define her abilities and, instead, works tirelessly to pursue her achievements. All of these great character traits are underscored by Julianna Margulies’ tour de force performance, which is an absolute thrill to watch.”

Megan Keenberg, partner, Van Kralingen & Keenberg LLP, offers up appreciation for a spin-off-show character who is a star in her own right: Diane Lockhart as “played to perfection” by Christine Baranski on The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Says Keenberg, “Lockhart displays a cool professionalism, a superior legal and strategic mind, and is unafraid to wield her power in support of her feminist ideals.”

The Complex and Charismatic Annalise Keating

Another intrepid woman lawyer who makes a big impact on the small screen, Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder is the primetime pick of Nabila Khan, associate lawyer, Ryan Edmonds Workplace Counsel. “Not only is Viola Davis (the actress who plays Annalise) incredibly fun to watch, but she plays a strong, nuanced and well-developed female character, which we definitely need to see more of in mainstream media.”

The Fashionable and Fearless Elle Woods

There are so many reasons to love the occasionally oblivious, endearingly impassioned, unendingly tenacious and always chic law student Elle Woods – not the least of which is her star turn on cross-examination. Snaps for Reese Witherspoon’s much-loved Legally Blonde role came from across the association and the twitterverse:

“Elle Woods, who went to law school for all the wrong reasons (so many of us do!) but showed them all anyway!” - Adrian Ishak, senior corporate counsel, Global Labour & Employment

“Elle Woods—she has brains, confidence and style!” - Lauren J. Dalton, associate, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

“As cheesy as Legally Blonde could be sometimes, I always loved it for Elle Woods’ unapologetic confidence. She didn’t just know she was a ‘misfit’ in the law world: she wore it on her sleeve and persevered. She also didn’t let gender stereotypes define her or her abilities, which was a rare storyline to see in movies at that time (or at least from what I can remember).” - Richa Sandill, staff lawyer, Scarborough Community Legal Services

“Elle Woods – for a very fashionable and realistic portrayal of why a first-year law student is not a lawyer, and a judge that appropriately accepts objections to questions. Plus, her first-day-as-an-intern outfit is amazing – and she's the reason I put scarves on my laptop bags.” - @lawandwine, Twitter

The Brash Underdog, Vinny ‘two yutes’ Gambini

Votes for another natural-born litigator – nicknamed “Vinny ‘two yutes’ Gambini” by Twitter user @lawlawlandshow and known to others as “My Cousin Vinny”– came in from fans of his courtroom theatrics and winning strategy. “Although he gets called out in court for coming in outlandish attire, he does a great cross examination which had even been used in my law school trial advocacy class,” says KJ Chong, legal counsel for BroadGrain Commodities Inc., “A great underdog story.” John Polyzogopoulos, partner at Blaney McMurtry LLP, adds “All the cringe-worthy moments of Vinny interacting with Judge Haller are that much funnier when watched through the eyes of a litigator.”

The Fixer’s Fixer, Michael Clayton

For realistic depiction, Jean-Claude Killey, partner, Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP, gives props to Michael Clayton as played by George Clooney in the film of the same name. “The fixer’s fixer – most lawyers imagine themselves to some degree as the on-call solvers of their clients problems,” says Killey. “Michael Clayton is a tragic, distilled version, the ‘fixer’ for a BigLaw firm, who reminds us that the satisfaction of solving problems won’t sustain us if we lose sight of our conscience along the way.”

The Deft and Disarming Defender, the Lincoln Lawyer

Twitter’s @Jacklyn McGrath makes a case for Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of criminal defense attorney Mick Haller, otherwise known as the Lincoln Lawyer, for his ability to “ethically get his elitist white-collar psychopathic criminal client prosecuted.” Also, “He has a great rapport with realistic criminals.”

The Tough and Principled Prosecutor, Kathryn Murphy

For lawyers in movies, Megan Keenberg’s vote goes to Kathryn Murphy (played by Kelly McGillis) as the District Attorney prosecuting a serious sexual assault case in The Accused: “Murphy is a tough and smart DA, who takes on a high-profile and high-risk case over the objections of her colleagues to seek justice for the victim of a horrific crime.”

The Outrageous, Loquacious, Litigious Jackie Chiles

A send-up of the stereotypically overly litigious society of 1990s America, Jackie Chiles, Cosmo Kramer’s lawsuit-happy lawyer in Seinfeld, brings viewing enjoyment to Natalia Angelini, partner, Hull & Hull LLP, “because he personified everything cliché about lawyers and did it in the most hilarious way!”

The Angsty and Ambitious Ally McBeal

Why does Ally McBeal (as portrayed by Callista Flockhart) entertain legal audiences? “Because,” says Melanie D. McNaught, partner, Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti LLP, “she showed that you can be yourself while having a successful (and funny) legal career!”

The Grinder: Self-Awareness for the Win

Aaron Grinhaus, Grinhaus Law Firm, has the final say with his self-aware selection: “Rob Lowe's character in TV’s The Grinder because it is the only lawyer show that acknowledges how fake lawyer shows are!”