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Best Legal TV Shows: TV Lawyers of the 1960s–2000s

Jools has been an online writer for over seven years. His articles tend to focus on pop culture and the rock industry.

The best TV lawyers from the 1960s to the 2000s

The best TV lawyers from the 1960s to the 2000s

It seems we may be addicted to the best legal TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed some of the best legal TV shows from the UK and the US have dominated television schedules all over the world.

Legal shows and shows featuring lawyers are not a recent addition to TV - some of the first (and best?) arrived on TV in the 1960s, and like all good stories involving lawyers and criminals - they have stood the test of time.

Some of the shows like Perry Mason still look like well-made dramas, and Raymond Burr certainly did have a certain gravitas to bring to the role.

In the UK, we still enjoy a good courtroom drama with shows like Judge John Deeds and Silk enjoying viewers into the millions.

So this article is a tribute to the best legal TV shows, from the early 1960s to the present day.

So take a seat - and remember, "silence in court"!

Best 1960s TV Lawyers

These 1960s TV shows featured some of the most compelling TV lawyers, including Abraham Lincoln Jones of The Law and Mr Jones and Perry Mason.

The Law and Mr Jones (1960–1962)

The 1960s started their legal TV shows in style with The Law and Mr Jones, starring James Whitmore as the wonderfully named Abraham Lincoln Jones.

The court cases mainly consisted of his law clerk, C.E. Carruthers (Conlan Carter), helping him to put together cases against fraudsters and embezzlers, ably assisted by his secretary, Marsha Spear.

The show had a loyal audience for its two seasons in 1960–1961 and had the fine character actor James Whitmore in the main role. Whitmore was already a well-respected stage and screen actor, having already won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for the 1949 movie Battleground.

He is probably best remembered by more recent audiences for his performance as Brooks in the prison movie Shawshank Redemption.

Although The Law and Mr Jones only lasted two seasons, it led the way for similar legal dramas and was a well-made show with high-quality acting.

The Defenders (1961–1965)

One of the shows to follow The Law and Mr Jones was The Defenders, a story of a father-and-son law firm which focused on more topical issues at the time, even covering one show on the subject of abortion. The Defenders' writer was Reginald Rose, most famous for writing the movie Twelve Angry Men.

Rose could be compared in many ways with one of today's top writers, Aaron Sorkin, who is equally unafraid to feature controversial topics in his many prime-time TV shows.

The Defenders starred E.G. Martin and Robert Reed; the latter was much more famous as the dad in The Brady Bunch!

Perry Mason (1957–1966)

Perry Mason, starring Raymond Burr, is perhaps the most well-known of the 1960s legal TV shows and actually began life in the 1950s as a radio show. Perry Mason was based on the novels by Erie Stanley Gardner. The plotlines were fairly rigid from week to week but were still suspenseful and very popular, making Perry Mason one of the longest-running lawyer shows. Raymond Burr played Mason to perfection; it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role - he truly made it his own.

Boyd QC (1956–1964)

In Britain, a show called Boyd QC covered similar ground to The Law and Mr Jones, though with a bit more edge. Sadly, almost every episode of the show was lost. Another popular show called Brothers In Law, starring a young Richard Briers as a young solicitor, ran for many years in the late '50s and early '60s and was, surprisingly for a legal TV show, a comedy!

Paper Chase

Paper Chase

Rumpole of The Bailey's Leo McKearn

Rumpole of The Bailey's Leo McKearn

Best 1970s TV Lawyers

The 1970s' Rumpole of the Bailey and other legal TV series of the decade paved the way for the successes of future shows.

The Paper Chase (1979–1986)

Perhaps one of the best legal TV shows in the 1970s was The Paper Chase, which was successful on both sides of the Atlantic and featured the wonderful John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield, overseeing the success or otherwise of law students at Harvard.

The great thing about The Paper Chase was that it was about the law but in a very different way; the storylines mainly concentrated on the successes or otherwise of three law students, and there was more going on in their personal lives than just college, so it was a sort of legal soap opera at times.

It ran for eight years between 1978 and 1986, though it had a rather chequered time getting onto the screen, being dropped after a year by CBS. It was revived by Showtime in the early '80s to an audience more ready for it.

Petrocelli (1974–1976)

One of the '70s best legal TV shows was Petrocelli which on the face of it should have never been a hit. Its storyline revolved around Harvard graduate Tony Petrocelli's decision to leave the rat race and the city behind in favour of a move to the country and the supposedly 'sleepy' town of San Remo.

Tony and his wife Maggie live in a trailer and are having a house built (it never does get finished).

Petrocelli was possibly one of the most formulaic TV shows in that the storylines almost always revolved around the defendant going to be found guilty, with Petrocelli coming upon some crucial evidence just when it matters and saving the day! We still loved it! One thing that was never explained was why there were so many murderers in 'sleepy' San Remo.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–1992)

One of the most successful British legal TV shows was Rumpole of the Bailey, starring Leo McKearn, who was a very funny barrister in a show blending comedy and drama. McKearn was an amazing actor, and the show is still shown today on British satellite TV.

It must seem odd to viewers from other countries watching to see the actors in all of the garb of the British legal system; wigs are de riguer - it's the law!

Crown Court (1972–1984)

Another British legal TV show which was very popular was Crown Court - it was actually daytime TV but had good viewing figures. Crown Court was all filmed inside the court, and the grand jury were made up of members of the public.

LA Law Main Cast

LA Law Main Cast

Best 1980s TV Lawyers

The 1980s' LA Law is still one of the best legal TV series of all time.

LA Law (1986–1994)

Perhaps one of THE best legal TV shows was LA Law.

It was certainly one of the 1980s best shows in any category.

LA Law was a show now which sums up the pop culture of the time - look at it now for the men's and women's fashions, haircuts and the whole high-powered law firm in the city vibe.

Other law shows went in other directions after this one, tending to keep it more serious; LA Law did a very successful job of doing drama and comedy in equal measure, and the storylines about the lawyers' personal lives really made the difference to the average viewer.

It ran from 1986 to 1994 and was one of writer/producer Steven Bochco's biggest TV hits. Many of its stars are still on TV today, Harry Hamlin, Blair Underwood, Michele Greene and Jimmy Smits all went on to other prime-time TV shows, and LA Law is still a good show when you watch it now; sometimes style won over substance but it was its ability to combine the two which made it successful.

Rumpole of the Bailey (1978–1992)

In Britain, Rumpole of the Bailey was still going strong into the 1980s; Leo McKearn's scripts were still being shaped by Rumpole's creator John Mortimer, keeping the show as popular in the '80s as it had been in the previous decade.

Best 1990s TV Lawyers

The 1990s saw the advent of the famous Law and Order franchise, as well as The Practice and other great legal series.

Law and Order (1990–)

Perhaps the best legal TV show, Law and Order, began its life in 1990.

The show followed a slightly different format, bringing criminal cases and legal cases into a neat dovetail in the hour-long show.

In this respect, it actually copies a little-known 1960s legal show called Arrest and Trial which starred Ben Gazzara and Chuck Connors.

Law and Order, in its first incarnation, starred Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach in the lead roles; Waterston as lawyer Jack McCoy and cop Lennie Briscoe. It was gritty and edge-of-the-seat for most of the show and survived ten years in its first format.

Law and Order: SVU (1999–)

Over the years, Law and Order has, like CSI, gone off in other more specific directions; one of the most popular of these is Law and Order: SVU (Special Victims Unit) which took on more sexual violence cases and gave the show a new level of drama which has remained popular. Its star, Mariska Hargitay, created one of TV's most popular and well-respected characters, Detective Olivia Benson.

The Practice (1997–2004)

Running alongside Law and Order was The Practice which had the chic, stylish leanings of LA Law but without the comedy. It was a good show because it featured more controversial court cases but also let us see all of the partners in court, changing the focus of the show every week. There was also some personal life covered and quite a few love affairs between some of the partners.

In British TV, Is It Legal? was a popular legal comedy starring Imelda Staunton, later to be famous for being Oscar-nominated for the movie Vera Drake. Law has continued to be a popular topic in British comedy.

Kinsey (1991–1992) and Kavanagh QC (1995–2001)

Kinsey, starring Leigh Lawson, lasted only two seasons and was outshone in every respect by that other K - Kavanagh QC, starring John Thaw as the working-class lad made good who ends up sitting Queen's Counsel.

Kavanagh was popular for many years and was also more in the legal/soap-opera style with Kavanagh's personal life taking up a lot of the show and adding some lightness to the darker courtroom drama.

Best 2000s TV Lawyers

In the 2000s, Law and Order expanded, and more fascinating TV shows about lawyers continued to pop up.

Law and Order: CI (Criminal Intent) (2001–2011)

In the 2000s, Law and Order: CI (Criminal Intent) became hugely popular, running from 2001 to 2011 and starring Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe. D'Onofrio took over from Chris Noth in the lead role and brought an intensity to the role of renegade cop Robert Goren.

Law and Order has always been shot in a streetwise, tough, mean and moody style and cuts scenes at quite a rate; you better not blink, or you will miss it!

Law and Order continues to be an extremely popular franchise which remains a stalwart of satellite and cable TV schedules.

Judge John Deed (2001–2007)

In Britain, Judge John Deed enjoyed a long spell on prime-time TV with Martin Shaw in the lead role, supported by Jenny Seagrove. Deeds is a bit of a maverick, being a stickler for seeing 'real justice' in his courtroom.

In fact, many of his court decisions were publicly criticized by British judges who say Deed's decisions were flawed and those things would never happen in a real court.

Martin Shaw felt that the show was becoming too formulaic and went on sabbatical, asking for the writers to 'refresh' its format. Sadly, this never happened, and it was cancelled in 2009.

Silk (2011–2014) and Criminal Justice (2008–2009)

In the early 2010s, the British legal TV show Silk, starring Maxine Peake, enjoyed popularity. The public seemed to enjoy Peake's gutsy performance.

Maxine Peake had already appeared in another legal drama, Criminal Justice, also written by Silk's writer, Peter Moffat.

Criminal Justice was shown every night over a week - very unusual on British TV but done deliberately to give viewers that sense of a court case coming to order every day for new evidence. It was very compelling.

Silk is about barristers in their pursuit of achieving Queen's Counsel (in the UK, this is known as 'taking silk' referring to their gowns and full silk-lined wigs) and is unlike any legal drama before in its realistic portrayal of barristers behaving as they really do; Moffet, a barrister himself, wanted to show it like it really was and sometimes ambition is ugly.

The Good Wife (2009–2016)

Another legal TV show that enjoyed huge popularity in the late 2000s and early 2010s was The Good Wife, the tale of a jailed ex-district-attourney's rise through a legal firm.

The Good Wife had wonderful court scenes and lots of twists and turns in the firm. Personally, I think the best thing about The Good Wife was Kalinda - she was the cleverest woman in any show on TV during that time, and she is British!

Why Do We Love Watching Lawyers on TV?

I think most of us like to watch TV legal and lawyer shows because we want to understand how the law works and under what circumstances the law doesn't work quite so well. Mostly, though, we like to be entertained.

There is nothing more satisfying than watching a lawyer work out how best to defend or prosecute once they are in court.

All of the shenanigans and investigations leading up to the moment when they are trying to cross-examine a witness are as gripping as the verdict itself - and we all enjoy suspense.

Red herrings come thick and fast, and the adversarial nature of lawyers makes the scripts really good.

So maybe the main reason we enjoy legal TV shows is that they are entertaining! I am sure I may have missed some of your personal favourites, and I apologise for that, but I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of mine.

Many thanks for reading!


Paul on July 06, 2019:

DEFENDERS starred EG Marshall (not EG Martin) & was the precursor to so many ... a favorite !

Patricia Scott on July 06, 2019:

Quite a collection I watched Perry Mason faithfully probably because it was what my parents watched. Over the years I have watched and continue to watch many shows both fiction and nonfiction that deal with legal matters. They just seem to fascinate me Thank you for sharing Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on April 24, 2013:

trusouldj, I really used to like The Practice and I also miss it. Many thanks for your comment.

LaZeric Freeman from Hammond on April 22, 2013:

I miss "The Practice" and "Family Law" was brilliant but short lived.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on November 01, 2012:

I have only seen Waking The Dead a few times Nell so I will try to catch up with it the next time it is on. Thanks for stopping by.

Nell Rose from England on October 31, 2012:

Hi jools, I did like Law and Order, but usually I tend to like stuff such as Walking with the dead, that was brilliant, but great list, and I remember my mum watching Perry mason, brings back memories! lol! voted up and shared, nell

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 31, 2012:

Case1Worker, many thanks for your comment - I bet you get frustrated with all of the things they get wring. I'm like that with shows about education and working in schools. I can't watch Waterloo Road, I end up spoiling it for everyone else :o)

CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on October 30, 2012:

Yes we are glued to legal/crime shows. Having worked for 5 years in the English criminal justice systemI get annoyed when things don't show exactly the truth. The uk law and order annoys me as the CPS lawyers and their role are inaccurately portrayed- however I like silks as it is much more realistic- athough I am sure that many barristers would say that it is not.

Great hub

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Ha Ha Deb - oh, the irony! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on October 30, 2012:

I used to love LA Law back in the day. Then I went to law school and never had time to watch TV any more. : )

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

I did consider adding Boston Legal because I really liked it but I made space for some UK shows so sorry about that! Many thanks for your comment!

Brad Masters from Southern California on October 30, 2012:

Perry Mason was good entertainment but lacked the real life legal actions. Perry won most of his cases by solving the crime. His cross examinations were flawed with violations of the evidence code. Still interesting as a fiction mystery.

Boston Legal was the best Legal parody this century.

Drop Dead Diva was also interesting.

All the rest of the legal shows should be used to generate a movement to reform the entire legal process.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

xstatic, many thanks for your comment - Perry Mason was so staid! I think the more modern shows are much better and faster paced, keep you on the edge of your seat.

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on October 30, 2012:

L A Law and the Defenders will always be two of my favorites, along with Law & Order SUV. I never cared for Perry Mason though. This was an interesting reminder of many of the great old shows.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

We watch the Good Wife but I think Kalinda is the real star of that show, she gets everything done for the rest of them though I know she's been coming through some tricky circumstances lately.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Oooh Paula, a Law and Order marathon? I want one! I'm not a Perry Mason fan, he's a bit too smug and earnest for my simple tastes. my favourite on-screen lawyers would be Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) and Susan Bloom - lawyer to the stars. I love Conchata Farrell, so funny :o)

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Mhatter, it seems this move to the radio is a trned (see Billybuc's comment). Silks is very good because Maxine Peake is a great actress. She tends to do character roles and Martha Costello is perfect for her.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Billy, I could not survive without my telly :o) I love a good court case. I even like movies which centre on a court case as well.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Alecia, many thanks for your comment - I feel old - you were born when LA LAw came out? I won't say how old I was :o) Yes, Law and Order UK was on TV here not too long ago but it didn't do too well to be honest. I will be surprised if they do anpther series.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on October 30, 2012:

Richie, Law and Order is the best isn't it! And the newer versions like SVU ad CI are just as good as the original. Many thanks for your comment.

Melanie Chisnall from Cape Town, South Africa on October 30, 2012:

There are so many of these - great job listing them! My favourite is The Good Wife at the moment, but I used to also enjoy The Practice, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal.

Suzie from Carson City on October 30, 2012:

Jools.....I love this type of program. I can't tell you how many Law & Order Marathons I've seen. They never get old. Some of the oldies are rerun daily and just between you and husband likes Perry Mason.........Oh, GAWD, that's not one of my favorites! Perry ALWAYS seems to manage to get the "perp" to fall apart and blurt out a confession in the court room......How unrealistic can we get?? LOL...UP+++

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on October 29, 2012:

My compliments on a great job. I have seen all but silk. I have switched to the radio, so I do not watch TV anymore.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 29, 2012:

I've seen them all except for Rumpole and Silks; I must love legal shows too. :) If any new ones come on I'm out of luck, though, without a tv.

Great list Julie!

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on October 29, 2012:

You did an awesome job on this Jools! You mentioned many of my favorites like Perry Mason, L.A. Law, Law and Order, and Law and Order: SVU.

I was born when L.A. Law came out but I've seen a good bit of the reruns and it is very entertaining.

I didn't know that Law and Order borrowed its format from Arrest and Trial.

And Perry Mason sets the standard for many of these shows.

Is Law and Order: UK big across the pond? I've tried to watch an episode but I couldn't understand what was going on.

Richie Mogwai from Vancouver on October 29, 2012:

Thanks for sharing your hub. I am a huge fan of the Law and Order series, too bad the original one had to be discontinued. I hear it lost a lot of jobs for New York City. But of all the kinds in the same series, I think I like SVU the most. There's something about Olivia and Elliot that glues me to the set. Criminal Intent is good, too, sometimes. It jiggles my mind and makes me think.