TV shows live and die by the richness of their characters, which is probably why so many notable shows have chosen to focus on lawyers over the years. Not only is the courtroom inherently wrought with dramatic tension, but few professions rely so heavily on the qualities of charisma and intellect. The current TV landscape is no exception, the most recent example being HBO's Perry Mason prequel, which tells the origin story of one of TV's most legendary lawyers. With so many TV lawyers to choose from, for this list we've chosen only the most iconic. We wouldn't necessarily chose to be defended by each of them ourselves, but when it comes to TV-lawyering, these are the cream of the crop:
Perry Mason is about as classic as TV lawyers get. Played by Raymond Burr, Mason was a straight-laced and hard-working defense attorney tasked with taking on the most seemingly impossible of cases. With the help of his secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), and his private investigator, Paul Drake (William Hopper), Mason often didn’t just defend his clients, but usually discovered the true culprit behind whatever crime they'd been wrongly accused of. As a lawyer, he executed his job with the kind of understated confidence befitting of his time, and he remained a capable defender of the law throughout his entire TV tenure, which spanned nine seasons and almost 300 episodes. You don’t get much more iconic than Mason, and if you don’t believe us, look no further than The Americans' Matthew Rhys taking over the title role in HBO's just-launched reboot.
Similar to Perry Mason, Andy Griffith’s Ben Matlock had a unique talent for putting people on the stand and getting them to inadvertently confess to their crimes in front of a courtroom full of people. Always dressed in a gray suit, Matlock’s simple, unassuming manner was the perfect contrast to his immense intellect and skill. Charging $100,000 for his services, he always ended up being worth the money paid to him, and remains a recognizable face to this day.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated lawyer than Law & Order’s Jack McCoy. Played by Sam Waterston, the character is steadfastly committed to getting criminals off the street and to upholding the law in any way he can. Over the 16 years that Waterston played him, McCoy rose from Executive Assistant District Attorney to District Attorney, and after years of watching him at work, it was hard not to feel like he had more than earned his success. Waterston’s performance as the character was so beloved, in fact, that Jack McCoy was named a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmarks Conservancy. You can’t get much more iconic than that.
It’s hard to think of television lawyers these days and not think of Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman). First introduced in Season 2 of Breaking Bad, Saul quickly won over both Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and viewers at home with his fast-talking personality and uncanny ability to get himself and his clients out of even the tightest of binds. In other words, he was the perfect lawyer for Walt. As Better Call Saul has given fans the chance to see how he became the lawyer they met in Breaking Bad, Saul has become an increasingly tragic figure, one whose reckless ambition ends up costing him far more than he even realizes. So, yeah, he may not be the most stand-up of guys, but we never said this list was going to be about TV’s most ethical lawyers.
Glenn Close made waves with her performance as the ruthless and cunning Patty Hewes in Damages. One of the heads of her own law firm, Patty had a talent for intimidating even her most arrogant opponents, and she approached her cases with a level of ferocity and tact that made her a force to be reckoned with. She could level her opponents with a glance, and her ability to command a room without ever raising her voice just made her seem that much more powerful.
Lionel Hutz was the perfect lawyer for the town of Springfield. That is to say, he was a desperate and shady ambulance chaser who operated on the same morally dubious playing field as many of the town’s citizens. Like most Simpsons characters, Hutz is exceptionally well-imagined, and the additional details of his life, like how his office is in a shopping mall, help elevate the character into truly memorable territory. Voiced perfectly by the late, great Phil Hartman, Hutz remains one of The Simpsons' great guest players.
Calista Flockhart’s Ally McBeal may not be the most dedicated of lawyers on this list, but she's certainly one of the most memorable. A winning blend of smart, confident, and neurotic, Ally was one of those rare TV characters that viewers wanted to hang out with week in and week out. She remains a touchstone for female characters on television, which means that even if she did tend to seem more focused on her love life and personal relationships than she ever was on her court cases, we won’t hold it against her.
Speaking of landmark female characters on TV, it’s time we got to Veronica Hamel’s memorable public defender, Joyce Davenport, from Hill Street Blues. The series, which ran from 1981-1987, was one of the first to feature a strong woman in such a position of power, but Joyce’s appeal as a character goes far beyond just her historical significance. She was tough, smart, and playfully snarky all at the same time, and her romance with Daniel J. Travanti’s Capt. Frank Furillo remains a sterling example of having two strong characters get together without compromising the agency of either. Hamel was nominated for five consecutive Emmys for her performance in the show, and looking back, it isn't hard to see why.
Few of the fictional lawyers on this list can deliver a monologue quite like Alan Shore. Overflowing with arrogance, James Spader’s Shore was both an incredible lawyer and an incredible showman. Whether he was giving a passionate opening statement in court, or just engaging in a friendly argument with Denny Crane (William Shatner), Alan almost always found a way to one-up everyone in the room. He was also one of the rare TV lawyers capable of being both overwhelmingly condescending and also surprisingly understanding of his clients’ plights, and that dynamic is a big part of what made him such a fun character to watch work. The fact that he often did so with an added level of spectacle thrown in only further helped him secure his place on this list.
It’s hard to think of anyone cooler than Harvey Specter, he’s practically the Don Draper of TV lawyers. In fact, even among all the fast-talking, quick-witted law practitioners on this list, Harvey stands out as one of the smartest, fastest, and most ruthless. Few characters are able to talk quite the way he can, and thanks to Gabriel Macht’s confident performance, every word he says lands just the way it should. Suits was filled to the brim with intelligent characters, but none of them were as entertaining or as engaging as Harvey Specter.
Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.