by Josh Taylor
We’re still smack-dab in the middle of Awards Season, and our last post about the Best Legal Movies of All Time got us thinking about another ranking: the very best, most dramatic, funniest, and most salacious legal TV shows of all time! With Smokeball, you don’t need to be some fancy TV lawyer to deliver top-notch high-tech legal service to your clients, but it’s still fun to watch those TV lawyers in action. Check out our rankings, and let us know if we’ve left your favorite off the list.
- Perry Mason (1957-1966)
CBS’s hit TV show was adapted from detective fiction by Erle Stanley Gardner. The criminal defense attorney character appeared in many novels and short stories before making appearances in motion pictures and a radio show before becoming a staple on CBS. Notably, the show was the first ever on television to boast hour-long episodes. The show was a critical and public success during its run. The show was nominated for the Best Dramatic Series Emmy in its first year and was presented the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award in 1960. Raymond Burr, starring as Mason, won two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor, and Barbara Hale, co-starring as Mason’s secretary, won one Emmy award as well. HBO is rumored to be reviving the drama with Robert Downey Jr. producing and with Matthew Rhys, award-winning star of The Americans, revisiting Burr’s titular role.
- Matlock (1986-1995)
Who doesn’t love the incomparable Andy Griffith? Perhaps his second most famous law enforcement role came as criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock. The show premiered on NBC in 1986, almost twenty years after the end of Griffith’s The Andy Griffith Show where he was the famous sheriff of Mayberry, Andy Taylor. The show was famous for Matlock’s animated and smart questioning of witnesses on the stand, most of which end up having been the real perpetrator. The show mixed both drama and comedy throughout, and Griffith’s former Mayberry sidekick, Don Knotts, often made appearances on the show.
- How to Get Away with Murder (2014-present)
A great mix of law school and law firm, How to Get Away with Murder followed after the unfettered success of Shonda Rhimes’s award-winning Scandal. The show stars Viola Davis as criminal awl professor and criminal defense attorney Annalise Keating. The show twists and turns with Keating and her student-interns becoming more and more involved in crimes and plots themselves. The show earned Davis critical acclaim and the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2015; she is the first black woman to have won the award. The show has also received SAG Award wins for Davis and Golden Globe nominations during its ongoing run.
There’s obviously a theme on TV for legal shows. Crime sells! Our past three ranked shows all explore the world of criminal defense. Smokeball is simply the best productivity software for criminal defense attorneys.
- The Practice (1997-2004)
This show marks the first of three appearances of show creator David E. Kelley on this list. The show revolves around a high-powered Boston law firm working on high-profile criminal and civil cases. During its eight-season run, the show racked up numerous awards, including the Emmy for Best Drama Series in 1998 and 1999, and several Golden Globe Awards. The show made household names of several cast members, including Dylan McDermott, Camryn Manheim, and Lara Flynn Boyle. James Spader makes his appearance in the last season of the show as a segue into the next show on our list. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role as Alan Shore, a trend that would continue with the series’ spinoff.
- Boston Legal (2004-2008)
A spinoff of The Practice and another David E. Kelley creation, this legal dramady put James Spader’s character, Alan Shore, squarely into the spotlight. Shore’s shady ethics and questionable practices can make any BigLaw attorney squirm with disdain or even familiarity. Most episodes, however, resolve with Shore making an impassioned and reasonable closing argument to a jury, keeping him likeable for just a moment before the next episode undoes it all. The show also features William Shatner and Candice Bergen as senior partners at Shore’s firm. The show was a critical success, earning Spader two Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor and Shatner an Emmy and Golden Globe in 2005 for his supporting work. Spader is one of very few actors to have won multiple Emmys for the same role on two different shows.
David E. Kelley’s shows often depict law firms with business clients. See why Smokeball is the #1 legal productivity software for law firms helping businesses, big and small!
- Suits (2011-present)
This popular show follows characters at a large New York City law firm. The show focuses on a college dropout, Mike Ross, who has magically become a legal associate at the large NY firm without having attended law school, a secret he is keen to keep. Recently, series regular Meghan Markle gained fame in another arena, marrying Britain’s Prince Harry in 2018. The show is well-liked by fans and has garnered a SAG Award nomination in 2012 and a TV Guide Award nomination in 2014. The series is still running despite losing regulars Markle and main character Mike Ross, played by Patrick J. Adams.
While Mike Ross may have never attended law school, many of our team at Smokeball has! We pride ourselves on staffing Smokeball with over 25 attorneys and former legal professionals because it results in award-winning service for your small law firm.
- Damages (2007-2012)
A favorite of this author, Damages is Glenn Close at her very best. Close took home the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in 2008 and 2009. She earned a Golden Globe for her role as ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes in 2007. The show follows Ellen Parsons, played to critical acclaim by Australian actress Rose Byrne, as she navigates the corrupt and emotionally treacherous world of criminal defense law working under Close’s Patty Hewes. The show takes on a mini-series flavor by following the twists and turns of a different case each season. Many episodes also begin with a concluding scene so that the audience is left guessing how things got to that point throughout the entire episode. Notable guest stars in various seasons include Ted Danson, William Hurt, Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, John Goodman, Ryan Phillippe, and Timothy Olyphant.
Rose Byrne has established herself in U.S. film and television after success in Australia. Smokeball has established itself as the best practice productivity software in the U.S. after success in Australia as well!
- The Good Wife (2009-2016)
Being based in Chicago, The Good Wife is dear to Smokeball’s heart with its main characters part of the Cook County legal system. The show follows Julianna Margulies’ character, Alicia Florrick, who returns to law practice after the public sex and corruption scandal of her husband, the State’s Attorney for Cook County. One of the show’s producers is the Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott. Margulies and the show have received immense critical acclaim and accolades. Margulies has won two Emmys for Lead Actress, and the show has been nominated for a total of 39. She also took home a Golden Globe in 2009 and two SAG Awards for the show. It has spawned a spinoff, The Good Fight, starring its Emmy-nominated supporting actress, Christine Baranski.
The Good Wife is a Chicago staple, and so is Smokeball! Learn more about Smokeball’s relationship and commitment to the Chicago community.
- Law & Order SVU (1999-present)
One of the longest-running shows in history, the Law & Order franchise really hit its stride with Special Victims Unit. The show features a ripped-from-the-headlines case each week, and stars the immensely consistent Mariska Hargitay, Hollywood royalty and daughter of Jayne Mansfield. She has won an Emmy and Golden Globe for her work on the show, and was nominated for eight consecutive years for the Emmy from 2004-2012. The show features a team of cops, detectives, and prosecutors putting away some of the most heinous criminals in new York City. And of course, the show builds drama and tension with the famous Law & Order “bom bom”.
- Ally McBeal (1997-2002)
Our third and final David E. Kelley vehicle, Ally McBeal defined the legal dramady from the late-90s to early 2000s. The Fox show centered around Calista Flockhart’s title character, a young lawyer at the fictional Boston law firm of Cage & Fish. The show, while billed as a legal drama, follows the life and love of its main character and her co-workers. The show was early training ground for many household names, including, Jane Krakowski (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Portia de Rossi (Arrested Development), and Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill). The show won two Golden Globes, an Emmy Award, and a SAG Award for best comedy series. Calista Flockhart won a Golden Globe in the show’s first season in 1997. Robert Downey Jr. also took home a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his work on the show.