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Ten Best Television Lawyer Shows

TV lawyer shows are huge in television history. Perry Mason, Matlock, L.A. Law, The Defenders, JAG, The Practice, Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law, Judd for the Defense, Law and Order and Boston Legal are the best TV legal programs.

The TV lawyer has been in practice since the early days of the small screen. Here are the ten best TV law shows and the actors who made them great. Any objections? Overruled!

Perry Mason (CBS, 1957-66)

Erle Stanley Gardner's immortal Perry Mason ruled the legal airwaves from Elvis Presley to the Beatles. The incomparable Raymond Burr had the title role as the fictional defense attorney, with William Hopper as private eye Paul Drake, Barbara Hale as secretary Della Street, William Talman as the hapless district attorney Hamilton Burger and Ray Collins as police Lt. Arthur Tragg. Burr's Mason was a powerhouse in the courtroom, winning every case but one (which he later added to the victory column on appeal) in 271 hour-long episodes. The formidable Mason not only got his clients off, but also exposed the real culprit, often during withering cross examination. When Perry Mason's memorable theme song, "Park Avenue Beat" by Fred Steiner, began to play, viewers knew they were in for a real treat.

Raymond Burr as Perry Mason (1957-66)

Matlock (NBC/ABC, 1986-95)

Andy Griffith had the title role of Ben Matlock, a sly, folksy southern defense attorney who practiced law in Atlanta, Georgia. Also on hand through the years were Nancy Stafford as Ben's daughter and fellow lawyer Michelle Thomas, Julie Sommars as prosecutor Julie March, Clarence Gilyard Jr. as private investigator Conrad McMasters, Kene Holliday as P.I. Tyler Hudson and Daniel Roebuck as attorney Cliff Lewis. Griffith's Matlock was sly as a fox in the courtroom, often tripping up witnesses with his cunning and calculated charm. Look for old The Andy Griffith Show regulars Don Knotts, Jack Dodson, Aneta Corsaut, Arlene Golonka and Betty Lynn as guest stars. "Benjamin Matlock for the defense, your honor," Andy Griffith often called out in the show's 182 hour-long episodes. And, boy, did he ever mean it...

L.A. Law (NBC, 1986-94)

The trials (literally) and tribulations of the fictional Los Angeles law firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak were front and center in this highly-acclaimed legal drama created by Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues (1981-87) fame. A long list of regulars graced the series, including Corbin Bensen (Arnie Becker), Jill Eickenberry (Ann Kelsey), Alan Rachins (Douglas Brackman Jr.), Michael Tucker (Stuart Markowitz), Richard Dysart (Leland McKenzie), Susan Dey (Grace Van Owen), Jimmy Smits (Victor Sifuentes) and Harry Hamlin (Michael Kuzak). The City of Angels came alive in L.A. Law's 171 hour-long episodes, thanks to interesting scripts and one of the best cast of Hollywood lawyers ever assembled.

The Defenders (CBS, 1961-65)

E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed headed the cast as father-and-son attorneys Lawrence and Kenneth Preston, respectively, in this cutting edge legal drama from the Golden Age of Television. Set in New York City, The Defenders featured hard-hitting storylines and top-notch production values. Among the more prominent guest stars featured on the show's 132 hour-long episodes were Ossie Davis, Gene Hackman, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Robert Redford, James Earl Jones, William Shatner and Dustin Hoffman – and yes, that's quite a lineup. The Defenders, created by noted TV/movie writer Reginald Rose, wasn't shy about tackling controversial issues, including blacklisting, euthanasia, abortion and civil rights. The Defenders debuted on Saturday night, September 16, 1961, following Perry Mason in the 8:30-9:30 PM (ET) slot on CBS.

JAG (NBC, 1995-2005)

The U.S. Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps – or JAG – was effectively dramatized in this military legal drama created by Donald P. Bellisario. David James Elliott had the starring role of ex-fighter jock-turned-Navy lawyer Commander Harmon Rabb Jr., with Catherine Bell (Lt. Colonel Sarah "Mac" MacKenzie), Patrick Labyorteaux (Lt. Bud Roberts Jr.) and John M. Jackson (Admiral A.J. Chegwidden) co-starring. The courtroom scenes and legal maneuvering were first rate, though the series occasionally delved into the ridiculous with our military counselors turning into mini-Rambo types while posted overseas. Lt. Colonel Oliver North (USMC, Ret.) of Iran-Contra fame can be glimpsed in three episodes in the role of Ollie.

Catherine Bell and David James Elliott in JAG (1995-2005)

The Practice (ABC, 1997-2004)

Steve Harris (Eugene Young), Camryn Manheim (Ellenor Frut), Michael Badalucco (Jimmy Berluti) and Dylan McDermott (Bobby Donnell) headed the cast of this popular legal drama centering on the Boston law firm of Bobby Donnell & Associates, which later morphed into Donnell, Young, Dole & Frut. Created by David E. Kelley, The Practice featured controversial issues and crackling scripts in its 168 hour-long episode run. The show continued of sorts in 2004 with the introduction of a spinoff series, Boston Legal (2004-08).

Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (ABC, 1971-74)

Arthur Hill had the starring role as legal eagle Owen Marshall, a widowed attorney who practiced law in Santa Barbara, California. Lee Majors played his associate Jess Brandon, with David Soul later coming on board as attorney Ted Warrick. Hill's Marshall later appeared on four episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969-76) in a pair of two-parters titled "Men Who Care" (1971) and "I've Promised You a Father"(1974). Among those guest starring in Owen Marshall's 69 hour-long episodes were DeForest Kelley, Farrah Fawcett, Vic Morrow, Rick Nelson and Tim Matheson.

Arthur Hill as Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law (1971-74)

Law and Order (NBC, 1990-present)

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." And so it continues on Law and Order, now in its 20th season on television and matching the popular Gunsmoke (1955-75) in small-screen longevity. S. Epatha Merkerson (Lt. Anita Van Buren), Sam Waterston (Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy), Jerry Orbach (Detective Lennie Briscoe) and Steven Hill (District Attorney Adam Schiff) were among the series regulars. Gritty and hard hitting, Law and Order has copped a slew of awards through the years, including a 1997 Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. It's now 456 hour-long episodes and counting...

Judd for the Defense (ABC, 1967-69)

Carl Betz starred as Clinton Judd, a high-powered Houston attorney who traveled the country defending his clients. Stephen Young co-starred as his associate Ben Caldwell. Often overlooked by television historians, this well-executed legal drama reflected the turbulent 1960s, with Christopher Jones, Edward Asner, Kim Darby, Karen Black, Robert Duvall, Richard Dreyfuss and Geraldine Brooks among the guest stars in the show's 50 hour-long episodes.

Boston Legal (2004-08)

A spinoff of The Practice, Boston Legal starred James Spader as Alan Shore and William Shatner as Denny Crane, two diverse attorneys practicing law together in Beantown. Originally titled Fleet Street, Boston Legal was a bit more lighthearted than its parent show, with the quirky, omnipresent Shatner hamming it up as Spader's conservative legal mentor in 101 hour-long episodes. Add the talents of Candice Bergen as Shirley Schmidt, and Boston Legal makes the video law review.

Cast of Boston Legal (2004-08)

Ten More TV Lawyer Show Favorites

  • Arrest and Trial (1963-64)
  • Night Court (1984-92)
  • Judging Amy (1999-2005)
  • Petrocelli (1974-76)
  • Murder One (1995-97)
  • The New Perry Mason (1973-74)
  • The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1969-72)
  • Court Martial (1966)
  • Shark (2006-08)
  • Damages (2007-present)

Copyright © 2010 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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Comments (9)

Great, insightful list of lawyer TV shows!

Perry Mason was quite untrue. Firstly, winning, Secondly, getting witnesses to confess under Cross-exam...naw. Fantasy. Matlock played the fool to catch the wise...but still.. a bit too much fantasy. LA law was a bit closer to reality. I saw the Practice a few times; not bad. Law & Order sometimes deals with real. The other's I don't know.

Perry Mason, and the rest of the TV legal shows for that matter, are all of course entertainment. Perry had the luxury in that all of his clients were innocent! We can watch Perry Mason in reruns, on tape or via the Internet and still enjoy ourselves. I get a kick out of Perry grilling some hapless witness on the stand. "Isn't it true you were there that night, waiting for Mrs. Collins to come home?" – or, my favorite – "Do you know the penalty for perjury?" And in every episode, Perry beat the poor old prosecutor Hamilton Burger.

Those things don't happen in real life. So it spoils the show. I watched an epi didn't like it. Not real. It's diff. when you watch Avatar or Star Trek..

@Suzann Dodd. Okay, stick to real life. Just be careful when you reach Warp Nine.

Um, -Rene is a shapeshifter from the Gamma Quadrant... how'd ya like to have one of THOSE on your legal defense team eh?

Indeed!

Nice selection of courtroom drama shows.

Good article. I loved "LA Law" in the 80's.

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