THE FIVE BEST AND THE FIVE WORST FICTIONAL LAWYERS

THE FIVE BEST AND THE FIVE WORST FICTIONAL LAWYERS

 

This rather quirky list focuses on attorneys whose competence (or lack thereof) might not be obvious. In no particular order:

 

BEST FICTIONAL ATTORNEYS

Hans Rolfe, Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Man, 1961 motion picture)

Rolfe represents a Nazi war criminal at the Nuremberg trials. Paradoxically, by vigorously defending a client whose actions he abhors, Rolfe stands against totalitarianism. The Rolfe character also warns that what happened in Nazi Germany could happen anywhere—a point especially resonant given our current political climate. Maximillian Schell won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Rolfe.

 

Captain Jack Ross, A Few Good Men (Aaron Sorkin, 1992 motion picture).

Ross isn’t the heroic Tom Cruise character (that’s Daniel Kaffee), who ultimately destroys Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) on cross-examination. Rather, Ross is the prosecutor, played by Kevin Bacon. Yet, he knows what it takes to be a good lawyer, telling Kaffee, “I don’t think your clients belong in jail. But I don’t get to make that decision. I represent the Government of the United States. Without passion or prejudice. And my client has a case.” Kudos to Ross, because that’s how a good lawyer thinks. Ross, without passion or prejudice, gives Jessup the Miranda warnings when the shocking truth emerges.

 

Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner and TV series)

District attorney Hamilton Burger tried hundreds of cases against Perry Mason and won at most three, according to trivia buffs. And even those three victories were short lived. So why is perennial loser Burger on the list of best lawyers? Because L.A. District Attorney is an elective office, and the city’s voters are unforgiving. How great must Burger have performed in his non-Mason cases to get re-elected time and again?

 

Lawrence Preston, The Defenders (Reginald Rose, TV series 1961-65)

Lawrence and Kenneth Preston, a father-and-son legal team, were the first TV lawyers to take on social issues—capital punishment, illegal search and seizures, and even abortion. A departure from a mystery series like Perry Mason, The Defenders signaled a sea change in American culture and helped transform the courtroom-drama genre. The show also helped launch the careers of later stars Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, James Earle Jones, Robert Redford, and Jon Voight.

 

Daniel Webster, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Steven Vincent Benét, short story 1936)

Webster represents Jabez Stone, who sold his soul to the devil (Old Scratch). Although the contract appears ironclad, orator and anti-slavery advocate Webster prevails before a judge and jury of villains. How can you not make a best-fictional-lawyers list when you beat the devil, whom Benét describes as the “King of Lawyers”?

 

 

WORST FICTIONAL LAWYERS

Daniel Webster, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Steven Vincent Benét, short story 1936)

Yes, Daniel Webster makes both lists. During his summation, according to the narrator, Webster “didn’t care if it was contempt of court or what would happen to him for it. He didn’t care anymore what happened to Jabez Stone.” In other words, Webster makes the trial about himself and abandons his client—a far cry from doing his job without passion or prejudice. He also promotes the concept of jury nullification, which poses a challenge to the justice system by encouraging jurors to act contrary to law.

 

Wilfrid Robards, Witness for the Prosecution (Agatha Christie short story, motion picture)

In the film, Charles Laughton’s memorable portrayal of the barrister obscures the fact that Robards is troubled. The lawyer arrives late to court at the start of a difficult murder trial, missing the prosecution’s opening statement and the first part of a witness’s key testimony; He drinks from a flask—while court is in session; he mixes alcohol with tranquilizers while on the job. His victory comes not because of his legal abilities but as a result of a third-party’s unexpected intervention. A 2017 article in Psychology Today notes that lawyers are almost twice as likely to struggle with alcohol abuse when compared to the general population. Robards needed help, as do many attorneys today.

 

Rusty Sabich, Presumed Innocent (Scott Turow)

The ethical rules governing attorneys provide that a lawyer shall not, without full disclosure, represent a client where the representation will be affected by the lawyer’s relationship with another person. Sabich had an affair with murder victim Carolyn Polhemus yet investigated her murder without disclosing the relationship. Sabich is a great character but also an unethical lawyer.

 

Matthew Harrison Brady, Inherit the Wind (Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee)

There’s an old saw that attorneys make bad witnesses—something about lawyer ego. Yet, prosecutor Brady makes the mistake of taking the stand in a trial of a schoolteacher who taught evolution to students. True to the stereotype, Brady’s testimony doesn’t work out so well, although it makes for superb courtroom drama.

 

Judge Fiona Maye, The Children Act (Ian McEwan)

A poignant novel about a judge who must decide whether to force a minor to undergo a blood transfusion despite his religious belief, The Children Act also portrays an example of blatant judicial misconduct. Good judges don’t develop personal relationships with former litigants, much less litigants who stalk them. Judge Maye should’ve called a social worker, a psychologist, and the constable.

 

This rather quirky list focuses on attorneys whose competence (or lack thereof) might not be obvious. In no particular order:

 

BEST FICTIONAL ATTORNEYS

Hans Rolfe, Judgment at Nuremberg (Abby Man, 1961 motion picture)

Rolfe represents a Nazi war criminal at the Nuremberg trials. Paradoxically, by vigorously defending a client whose actions he abhors, Rolfe stands against totalitarianism. The Rolfe character also warns that what happened in Nazi Germany could happen anywhere—a point especially resonant given our current political climate. Maximillian Schell won a Best Actor Oscar for portraying Rolfe.

 

Captain Jack Ross, A Few Good Men (Aaron Sorkin, 1992 motion picture).

Ross isn’t the heroic Tom Cruise character (that’s Daniel Kaffee), who ultimately destroys Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) on cross-examination. Rather, Ross is the prosecutor, played by Kevin Bacon. Yet, he knows what it takes to be a good lawyer, telling Kaffee, “I don’t think your clients belong in jail. But I don’t get to make that decision. I represent the Government of the United States. Without passion or prejudice. And my client has a case.” Kudos to Ross, because that’s how a good lawyer thinks. Ross, without passion or prejudice, gives Jessup the Miranda warnings when the shocking truth emerges.

 

Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason (Erle Stanley Gardner and TV series)

District attorney Hamilton Burger tried hundreds of cases against Perry Mason and won at most three, according to trivia buffs. And even those three victories were short lived. So why is perennial loser Burger on the list of best lawyers? Because L.A. District Attorney is an elective office, and the city’s voters are unforgiving. How great must Burger have performed in his non-Mason cases to get re-elected time and again?

 

Lawrence Preston, The Defenders (Reginald Rose, TV series 1961-65)

Lawrence and Kenneth Preston, a father-and-son legal team, were the first TV lawyers to take on social issues—capital punishment, illegal search and seizures, and even abortion. A departure from a mystery series like Perry Mason, The Defenders signaled a sea change in American culture and helped transform the courtroom-drama genre. The show also helped launch the careers of later stars Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, James Earle Jones, Robert Redford, and Jon Voight.

 

Daniel Webster, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Steven Vincent Benét, short story 1936)

Webster represents Jabez Stone, who sold his soul to the devil (Old Scratch). Although the contract appears ironclad, orator and anti-slavery advocate Webster prevails before a judge and jury of villains. How can you not make a best-fictional-lawyers list when you beat the devil, whom Benét describes as the “King of Lawyers”?

 

 

WORST FICTIONAL LAWYERS

Daniel Webster, The Devil and Daniel Webster (Steven Vincent Benét, short story 1936)

Yes, Daniel Webster makes both lists. During his summation, according to the narrator, Webster “didn’t care if it was contempt of court or what would happen to him for it. He didn’t care anymore what happened to Jabez Stone.” In other words, Webster makes the trial about himself and abandons his client—a far cry from doing his job without passion or prejudice. He also promotes the concept of jury nullification, which poses a challenge to the justice system by encouraging jurors to act contrary to law.

 

Wilfrid Robards, Witness for the Prosecution (Agatha Christie short story, motion picture)

In the film, Charles Laughton’s memorable portrayal of the barrister obscures the fact that Robards is troubled. The lawyer arrives late to court at the start of a difficult murder trial, missing the prosecution’s opening statement and the first part of a witness’s key testimony; He drinks from a flask—while court is in session; he mixes alcohol with tranquilizers while on the job. His victory comes not because of his legal abilities but as a result of a third-party’s unexpected intervention. A 2017 article in Psychology Today notes that lawyers are almost twice as likely to struggle with alcohol abuse when compared to the general population. Robards needed help, as do many attorneys today.

 

Rusty Sabich, Presumed Innocent (Scott Turow)

The ethical rules governing attorneys provide that a lawyer shall not, without full disclosure, represent a client where the representation will be affected by the lawyer’s relationship with another person. Sabich had an affair with murder victim Carolyn Polhemus yet investigated her murder without disclosing the relationship. Sabich is a great character but also an unethical lawyer.

Matthew Harrison Brady, Inherit the Wind (Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee)

There’s an old saw that attorneys make bad witnesses—something about lawyer ego. Yet, prosecutor Brady makes the mistake of taking the stand in a trial of a schoolteacher who taught evolution to students. True to the stereotype, Brady’s testimony doesn’t work out so well, although it makes for superb courtroom drama.

 

Judge Fiona Maye, The Children Act (Ian McEwan)

A poignant novel about a judge who must decide whether to force a minor to undergo a blood transfusion despite his religious belief, The Children Act also portrays an example of blatant judicial misconduct. Good judges don’t develop personal relationships with former litigants, much less litigants who stalk them. Judge Maye should’ve called a social worker, a psychologist, and the constable.

 

Robert Rotstein, with James Patterson, is the author of The Family Lawyer, the title story of the New York Times bestselling collection. He’s written Corrupt Practices, Reckless Disregard, and The Bomb Maker’s Son. Rotstein practices intellectual property law with the Los Angeles firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, LLP, and has represented all the major movie studios and record companies, as well as well-known directors and writers. Rotstein’s most recent novel is We, The Jury, which published in October 2018

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