Life as a Lawyer: 6 Myths You Should Get Out of Your Head Before You Go to Law School

About the Author
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course. 

Image shows a caricature of lawyers from Vanity Fair.

Almost everyone has watched at least one legal drama, or film with a courtroom scene.
And it’s not surprising that law makes good television; the stakes are high, so much depends upon those all-important details, and the fact that the law is involved at all suggests that something interesting has happened. Yet for most of us, legal dramas and stories we hear from family or friends are all we know about the legal system. Are these stories and stereotypes reliable?

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For the most part, you can depend on TV or film stories about the law to do away with some of the more technical details and lose some of the more mundane aspects of legal life. You can also expect legal battles on screen (and in the papers!) to be a bit more black-and-white good v evil than you’ll find in day to day life- not to mention the lawyers themselves! Real life is seldom as dramatic as fiction, of course, but depictions of law can involve an unusual amount of creative licence. So this is an attempt to straighten out a few misconceptions about the legal system and legal education, using a few well-known films and TV series along the way.

1. Law school: not that scary, but with plenty of work

Image shows a still from the courtroom scene in Legally Blonde.
Legally Blonde also shows the intelligence required to get on to a law course – Elle Woods might not seem bright, but she gets 179 on her SATs.
Film still from Legally Blonde (R. Luketic, 2001)

If you’ve ever watched Legally Blonde, you probably had the impression that law school is for people who are ‘boring and ugly and serious’. And, so the film suggests, who are rude to anyone other than their own type and don’t know how to dress. This just isn’t true! There are students from every background and with wildly different aims on law courses at university, even if a fair few let their ambition to be a human rights lawyer fall by the wayside over the course of their degree. And we’re certainly a nicer set than Legally Blonde would make out.

What Legally Blonde does show really well though is that whatever you’re working on, you need to know it inside-out. Elle Woods may have been lucky in getting a trial where her fashion knowledge is useful, but she uses that knowledge in ways which most people wouldn’t think to (spoiler!) – working out that Chutney can’t have been in the shower because she’d had a perm, for instance! It’s a silly example but a good demonstration of how you should never think any detail is beneath you.
Of course, no first year student is going to be given a murder trial to lead. And from what little I know of SATs and the fair amount I know of study in general, it takes sustained work to achieve the grades to go to Harvard rather than a short period of cramming!

2. The three ring circus – speeches in court

A good chunk of the words spoken in court on screen would be barred as leading, overly emotive or irrelevant. It may make it less fun, but then again we should probably make sure that juries are led more by facts than by emotionsYou certainly need to be a good speaker to do well as a barrister, but that doesn’t require you to have amazing acting skills – it should be more about your ability to present a clear and understandable argument, especially if you are in a jury trial. Chicago is so obviously a parody of the legal system that there’s little danger of anyone getting the impression that you could get away with Billy Flynn’s style of court advocacy, but you’ll find courtroom speeches being overplayed in many dramas. Silk has been praised as one of the most accurate depictions of life as an English criminal barrister, but even some of the speeches during trials are a little suspect for their appeals to emotion.
And of course, it’s important not to forget that these courtroom dramas are often focusing on criminal trials or mass-action tort cases; where the facts matter and there is very much a ‘victim’. For some more measured advocacy in front of a single judge head down to a hearing in open civil court, or watch the broadcast of proceedings from the English Supreme Court.

3. Twelve Angry Men? – the role of juries

Image shows a film still from Twelve Angry Men, showing all of the jurors.
The actions shown in Twelve Angry Men would lead to a mistrial. Film still from Twelve Angry Men (S. Lumet, 1957)

Jury service is the one part of the legal justice system that (almost) everyone could be involved in, depending on your home country’s system. Between this and the fact that the deliberations of juries are kept secret, the workings of a jury are of great interest to anyone who wonders how our justice system works. Twelve ‘ordinary’ people who must come to one decision on the basis of evidence which they might all interpret differently? The recipe for great television.
It’s true that scientific jury selection is occasionally used in the larger trials in America, such as is shown in Runaway Jury – but many of the tactics used in that book/film are well beyond what is usual practice, and many are illegal. And it is important to know that objections to jurors have to be based on convincing reasons in most jurisdictions (basically knowing the defendant), and of course to remember that in most cases there will not be this level of interest in who sits on the jury! The jury’s role is actually relatively limited, however important it may be – to decide facts, with the judge then making the legal decision. A judge’s directions to the jury will also be significant in ensuring that they are focused on the evidence presented and what they ought (not) to take into account.
There are also limits on what a jury can do in terms of making their own investigations. It’s becoming an increasing problem that jurors will read online about the trial they are serving in, possibly allowing their decision to be based on information not approved for use in court. Jurors cannot make their own investigations of a crime scene or introduce evidence that they have taken from a crime scene– unlike in Twelve Angry Men! Juries can be discharged for trying to take matters into their own hands, and it’s important that they listen to the judge’s instructions so as not to risk a mistrial.

4. Big shot lawyers – not the full story

Image shows a film still from the film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts.
Erin Brockovich shows a lawsuit more accurately than some films, possibly because it’s based on a true story.
Film still from Erin Brockovich (S. Soderbergh, 2000)

It’s great to see the ‘hero lawyer’ have her Eureka moment, or pull off a victory single-handedly. This, of course, isn’t often the case and is very rarely the full story. As with anything in real life, there is a whole group of people who put a lot of background work into the preparation of a trial, or any other legal transaction. Erin Brockovich has been credited with showing the importance of those people who sort the paperwork, spend time running around collecting information and who put all the hours into preparing a case. It also shows, even if without really making the point, that much will depend on individuals who are not legally connected to the case – the document which opened the way to a triple damages claim was only accessed by the team because somebody from the company saved it from being destroyed and handed it to Erin. Lawyers have to be able to work well with those they depend upon, such as paralegals and more junior lawyers, and law students need to realise that they will be the ones doing the legwork for a good part of their career! Silk is particularly good for showing the importance of clerks in barristers’ chambers; they may not be the ones in court but they have extraordinary power over the running of the chambers, whether they are the senior clerk who is bringing in clients or a more junior one whose failures to do the photocopying will cause big problems. Silk also shows the sheer amount of preparation and work involved in life as a barrister; Martha Costello often goes home to a bottle of beer and some preparatory reading for the next day’s work.
Linked to this is the fact that for many, working as a lawyer is not about spending every day in court or even doing a great deal of litigation work. Solicitors will prepare documentation for trials but won’t say anything in court unless they are trained solicitor-advocates, and in any case much of their work will be office-based. Whether you’re in corporate law drawing up contracts for the sale of a company or conveyancing law dealing with the necessary formalities to transfer title in a property, many lawyers are much more office-based than the big screen’s focus on (often criminal) barristers would suggest. It’s just that courts are seen as more exciting, I suppose! That’s not to say that being a solicitor can’t be equally as thrilling – especially when the deal you have been working on is in the papers – but it can be very different. The fact that you’re not your own boss means that you need to account for your time a lot more, for instance. Solicitors at large corporate firms have to keep a log of which matters they have been working on, doing what and for how long, sometimes in very small increments such as every 15 minutes! It isn’t so much dashing off to court and long lunches with clients as making sure you clock the hours at work. It’s understandable that we hear and know more about the court side of the work but solicitors and others do put plenty of effort and hours in too; and of course there are plenty of legal issues which never see a courtroom.

5. Alternatives to trial are on the up

Apart from the obvious fact that not every visit to a lawyer’s office will end in a trial (you might just want a will drawing up), we often think of legal disputes as ending up in court. In fact, alternatives such as settling, arbitration or mediation are very popular, not to mention usually cheaper. In Erin Brockovich we see the decision being made not to go to trial, but it’s not often the case in legal drama. After all, a trial is more interesting to watch than a short hearing in front of a single expert. And we don’t hear much in the papers because arbitration proceedings tend not to be publicised by the parties involved. It is important as a lawyer to know that court is not always the first port of call for a legal dispute and that negotiating a solution may be more in the your client’s best interests than having a full battle with all the costs attached to that process.

6. Murder and mystery

Image shows Morse and Lewis from the ITV series Inspector Morse, next to Morse's famous Jaguar.
Thankfully Oxford has a much lower murder rate than Morse would suggest!
Image copyright ITV.

It would be impossible to avoid mentioning law enforcement and police work; after all, there’s no point in a law without its enforcement, and police work is a very respectable alternative to the Criminal Bar if you are interested in criminal law. Unfortunately for those looking for an exciting life chasing serial killers however, a much smaller proportion of crimes are murders than television and films would have us believe. Nor are the defendants always so liable to confess, or even be in the same town and happy to speak to the police during the whole period of investigation! Much as this may be disappointing to fans of Morse, Lewis and Endeavour who fancy themselves the next in a long line of famous detectives, it does make life a little less dangerous for the police (and students) of Oxford! UKCrimeStats shows you a more accurate representation of the police’s workload – they have far more anti-social behaviour to deal with than murders.
It is perhaps an inevitable conclusion that we hear more about the more ‘exciting’ parts of a lawyer’s life, and that we see these elements hyped up on screen. Few people want to hear about hours slaved away checking that a seller has proper title to the land they are selling your client, but this doesn’t make the work any less important. It is however crucial to be aware that the stereotypes about lawyers are not always accurate and that you should dig a little deeper if you want to find out what life in the law is like. If you’re considering law as a profession you have probably learnt that lesson already though, since lawyers have so roundly demonised in popular culture and for so long that anyone basing their view just on what they hear would avoid the vocation. After all, it’s over 400 years since a play was written with the line:
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” (Henry V, Part 2)
Not the best advertisement for our profession!

Image credits: banner; Legally Blonde; Twelve Angry Men; Erin Brockovich; Morse