Learning from TV Lawyers

Legal dramas are popular.  Hollywood has an endless supply of television shows and movies featuring lawyers in an assortment of situations.  Many non-lawyers ask me whether these programs are an accurate reflection of the legal profession.  I often respond by relating an anecdote from when I studied for the Bar Exam: to prepare for the legal ethics portion of the Exam, our instructors advised us to watch any legal show and write down all the ethical rules that the characters routinely break!  In another words: in real life, lawyers couldn’t get away with anything that makes for engaging entertainment.    

Lately my wife and I started watching the USA Network television legal drama, Suits.  I know that we are late to the game but we are enjoying the show.  However, I cannot help but point out to my wife all of the ethical rules that are broken in every episode.  Without asking for it, my wife is getting a free Bar Exam review course on legal ethics!  Below are some of the most egregious examples. 

Unauthorized Practice of Law

The premise of the show features Mike Ross, a young man with a photographic memory who passed the New York Bar Exam but did not formally attend law school and was never admitted to the Bar.  Nevertheless, veteran corporate attorney Harvey Spector hires him anyhow because he is impressed with his intelligence and this confident attitude.  He pretends to have graduated from Harvard Law School and immediately jumps into the hectic pace of legal work.  Later, other members of the top New York law firm, including the managing partner Jessica Pearson, learn of Mike’s secret that he really has not been admitted to the Bar and yet they all comfortably allow him to act as an attorney, including representing the firm’s clients in court. 

According to the New York State Board of Law Examiners website, “Section 520 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys and Counselors at Law provides four routes for an applicant to qualify to take the New York bar examination, all of which require at least some form of classroom study in a law school.”  Clearly, Mike is not eligible to practice law. 

Mike, Harvey, and Jessica all consistently violate ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 5.5: “A lawyer shall not practice law in a jurisdiction in violation of the regulation of the legal profession in that jurisdiction, or assist another in doing so.”

Harvey and Jessica further violate ABA Model Rule 5.1 – Responsibilities of a Partner or Supervisory Lawyer: 
“(a) A partner in a law firm, and a lawyer who individually or together with other lawyers possesses comparable managerial authority in a law firm, shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the firm has in effect measures giving reasonable assurance that all lawyers in the firm conform to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
(b) A lawyer having direct supervisory authority over another lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that the other lawyer conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.”


ABA Model Rule 1.1 requires all lawyers to practice competently: “A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

For the most part, the show portrays Mike Ross as an effective advocate for the law firm’s clients.  However, he has not been formally trained as a lawyer pursuant to the New York State Bar of Law Examiners requirements and is not properly guided by the senior attorneys at the firm.  The law is complex and it is truly impossible for him to practice competently. 

Additionally, the law firm of Pearson Hardman / Pearson Darby / Pearson Spector appears to be able to practice in every area of the law, from corporate law to landlord / tenant law to criminal law.  The reality is that the legal profession is so specialized that it is not likely the same attorneys can be competent in such a wide range of practice areas.  

Fairness to Opposing Party and Counsel

Mike, Harvey, and Jessica see every aspect of their practice as a competition and they want to win every time.  They often engage in gamesmanship and “creative lawyering” that involves being untruthful with opposing counsel.  In one instance, a key document was buried and later it was revealed that a partner had planted the document in the first place. 

ABA Model Rule 3.4 prevents this kind of dishonest behavior: “A lawyer shall not: unlawfully obstruct another party’ s access to evidence or unlawfully alter, destroy or conceal a document or other material having potential evidentiary value. A lawyer shall not counsel or assist another person to do any such act.”

Duties for Former Clients

Partner Daniel Hardman represents a particular client in one case.  Later, after he is forced out of the firm, he is hired by the opposing law firm to represent the other side in the same matter.  

ABA Model Rule 1.9 provides: “A lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter represent another person in the same or a substantially related matter in which that person’s interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client gives informed consent, confirmed in writing.”


Legal shows are entertaining precisely because the characters engage in activity that does not happen in reality without adverse consequences.  While the portrayals contribute to an unflattering view of the practice of law, they do remind law students and attorneys of the ethical rules that we all must follow!

KRASA LAW, Inc. is located at 704-D Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, California 93950 and Kyle may be reached at 831-920-0205.

Disclaimer: This article is for general information only.  Reading this article does not establish an attorney-client relationship.  Before acting on any of the information contained in this article, you should consult a competent attorney who is licensed to practice law in your community.