I will be the first to admit that I loved the Perry Mason books and t.v. show when I was a kid. I also enjoyed reading the ripping yarns of Scott Turow (“One L” sent shivers down my non-Socratic-method spine) and, of course, John Grisham. Matlock was kind of corny but I watched it every now and again. Coming of age in the 1980s, L.A. Law was the “it” lawyer show to watch, although “The Paper Chase” was much better and more accurate.
Most lawyers are characters, believe me. I know from my own personal experience that they get themselves into some crazy messes. Right now, “Better Call Saul” is my number one favorite portrayal of the average lawyer I know. That and the dialogue is brilliant.
But if you’re crafting, say, a trial scene, the reality of those moments is much more mundane that what you read or see on video media. Here’s a good piece of actual dialogue from one of my first trials:
Judge: “Mr. Canberra, where is your client?”
Canberra (flipping through his file and dropping his pen onto counsel table with a thud): “I don’t know your honor, it says here he’s a decedent.”
Me: chortle chortle
Judge: “Excuse me, did you just say he was a decedent?”
Me (under my breath): “He’s dead? Guess he won’t be showing up.” more chortling
Canberra: (stuttering): “Y,Yes, your honor, a decedent.
Judge: “Now Mr. Canberra, don’t you think that I would be the first to know whether or not the man was a decedent?”
Court clerk, bailiff, and court reporter start laughing but try to hide it.
Canberra (turning a shade of crimson I’d never seen before and flipping hard through the pages. He stops and pokes his finger at an entry): “Of course, your Honor. Absolutely you would. But you see he’s not a decedent, he’s a merchant semen.”
The entire court erupts in loud laughter, including myself.
Judge: “Mr. Canberra, you’re telling the court he is a sea MAN, a seaman?”
Canberra (smiling and placing file onto counsel table): “Yes, your honor, he is. And I need a new court date if you don’t mind. He is, as I just discovered, out at sea.”
Canberra sits and neither myself nor the judge can contain our laughter any longer. The moment passes and his client got the new court date.
Occasionally, the average attorney will get a really great case and it will make the news. But most authors won’t exactly hunt these stories down; and the transcripts will generally be procedural and dry. Obviously if you write about true crime, it’s less about the lawyers and more about the victim, the perp, and the investigators who out the bad guy (hopefully) for the sake of justice.
What provides better fodder for lawyer focused novels is the darker side of the profession: engaging in money laundering for a prostitution ring (true story); getting into bed with the mob for money; rigging cases with the judge; hiding evidence or destroying it (in massive quantities sometimes, as the Cobell v. Norton Indian Trust Settlement case); and yes, committing crimes themselves.
I would urge you to give a cursory glance at a transcript or two to get a feel for the language spoken by lawyers in the courtroom. Watch those dry video feeds of courtroom proceedings. Understand what each player in the courtroom does. It is different from what most people consider “normal” behavior. Remember, it is grounded in medieval British and Germanic concepts and practices of meting out justice. The language (known as “legalese”) can be downright unintelligible – res ipsa loquitur – “let the thing speak for itself.” I still get a kick out of people who want to “squash” their warrants, not “quash” them, which is the proper word. I suppose if you sat on one it would be deemed squashed.
Witnesses rarely, if ever, freak out, too. Occasionally some poor, unbalanced soul will lose it on the stand, particularly in divorce and probate cases. Most judges kibosh that noise pretty quickly. If the person doesn’t stop the ruckus, they’re carted off to the pokey. That would be a good opportunity to throw in some choice words for the instigator that reveals some darker subplot.
Corporate lawyers are famous for being shady. This proved to be mostly true during the tobacco litigation cases; any toxic tort case such as Love Canal in New York or the Karen Silkwood matter; the entire Wall Street meltdown and fall of Goldman-Sachs and other huge brokerage houses; and anything to do with oil, gas, uranium, or diamonds. Much of what these entities do that is hidden from public view can prove horrifying and become the basis for an excellent good vs. evil plot. Mr. Grisham has perfected that technique.
Today, you could use the terrifying accessibility law enforcement and other government agencies have to the ordinary person and use a lawyer character as a foil. Edward Snowden’s case proves my point in that regard. So does the proliferation of cameras and other digital recording devices that can literally track your every move in any given city in the United States. That’s our current dystopian reality.
Much of the courtroom drama you see in the video age is just that: drama. Much of it actually rolls like “My Cousin Vinny” (my all time favorite lawyer movie). If you can craft a character who represents a happy medium of astuteness and humility combined with humor, I guarantee you will connect with the average reader. I don’t think that most people favor reading about lawyers when the lawyer doesn’t “get it” in the end unless that lawyer is neither stuck up nor unethical.
Oh and “Legally Blonde” is another fave. Ironically, this scene is not as far removed from the truth as you might imagine. But that’s for you to figure out as you create your next stellar legal mind to either save the day or single-handedly cause the decline of Western civilization as we know it.