“Harry’s Law” Is A Legal Ethics Mess

When it comes to legal ethics, "Harry" is no straight-shooter.

As I have noted before, TV has one of its more ethically-sophisticated legal dramas to date in CBS’s “The Good Wife.” Oh, the lawyers (and their investigators) are frequently unethical, all right, but the show has seldom represented unethical conduct as ethical, or implied that it would be defensible if it came to the attention of the bar. In contrast, the new NBC Kathy Bates drama “Harry’s Law” has already ticketed itself for the Dumb Lawyer TV Show Hall of Shame, grossly misleading its audience about what constitutes a lawyer’s ethical duties. (Other recent admittees to the Hall: James Woods’ “Shark,” the Kathleen Quinlan drama “Family Law,” Steven Bochco’s embarrassing “Raising the Bar,”and every legal show created by David Kelley.)

I will repeat my call for state bar associations and the ABA to put out press releases condemning TV programs and movies (The Dumb Lawyer Movie Hall of Shame is bursting at the seams, with such deserving enshrinees as “The Verdict,” “And Justice For All,” “Runaway Jury,” “A Civil Action,” “Adam’s Rib,” “Nuts,” and about a hundred others) that actively misinform the public about a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities. In one episode of “Harry’s Law,” Bates, a defense attorney with a criminal defendant, actually throws a trial because she is convinced her client is guilty and that he lied to her. This is portrayed on the show as a courageous act. It isn’t. It is as terrible a breach of legal ethics as there can be, and would get any lawyer in America disbarred. Guilty clients still have the right to be proven guilty, and it is the defense lawyer’s job to make sure the prosecution does prove it, whether the defendant is guilty or not. Bates’s conduct was a betrayal and an abandonment of the integrity of the justice system. But she was not disbarred for it on the show. This not only served to excuse outrageously unprofessional conduct, but also to feed the public’s persistent confusion over why lawyers still defend guilty criminals.

“Harry’s” conduct was distinguishable from that of Daniel Bibb, a Manhattan prosecutor who admitted to tanking a hearing in order to ensure release of two men he believed were innocent. Yes, he should have been disbarred too (he wasn’t), but his actions, while betraying his client (the city of Manhattan), didn’t put a trusting defendant in jail without a zealous defense. Legal ethics rules require that prosecutors take extraordinary measures to prevent the innocent from being convicted—not this extraordinary, but at least Bibb was seeking the kind of justice prosecutors are charged with achieving. Bates, however, was directly violating her duty as a defense attorney, and “Harry’s Law’s” writer wanted the audience to believe that was heroic.

I’m not going to watch the show again, much as I admire Kathy Bates. When a show reaches the screaming at the screen stage (“Shark” had me doing this regularly), it’s just not healthy for me. It’s also not healthy for anyone else, who will finish watching each episode with less  understanding of the ethical duties of lawyers than they had when they turned on the TV.

13 thoughts on ““Harry’s Law” Is A Legal Ethics Mess

  1. Thanks for helping me out. I had recorded several episodes for future watching, and my DVR was almost full. Now I can delete all the saved Harry’s Laws, saving me a lot of time AND disk space.

  2. THANK YOU! I tried watching that show twice, because I like Kathy Bates but the writing and presentation of the legal system and ethics is so awful we had to turn it off.

    The gist of Bate’s character’s trial summation last night was, ” I know they broke the law, but if you convict them you’ll feel bad and have trouble sleeping”.

    What a crock. The show needs new writers or to be canceled.

      • Seriously…I had to leave the room. There was no discussion of the Law, but rather a poor excuse for a “debate” on political issues. GAG.

        Hubby and I are serious Law and Order watchers, and we watch like hawks for “over the line” behaviors in that show (generates some serious discussion/research occasionally!) – so you can imagine the reaction to Harry’s Law!!!

        What’s more frightening is the prospect that 1) someone actually believes that that’s how the legal system does (or should) work, and 2) that the uninformed buy into this crap as “how justice works”. More mis-educated people we do NOT need!

  3. The USA criminal law adversarial system is so simple. The ethical duty of a defense attorney is to force the prosecution to prove the accused guilty. He/she is NEVER required to prove the accused not guilty – if he/she can do so, that’s a bonus, but it’s not the defense’s duty.

    The defense does NOT have to prove innocence. Of course that really angers the hard-liners. Here is some dialogue from the musical comedy, “Paint Your Wagon”:

    ANGRY MOB: Let’s hang the guilty bastard!

    MAYOR RUMSON: Naw — let’s give him a fair trial and THEN hang the guilty bastard!

  4. I could never be a prosecutor or defense attorney for those reasons.

    I would never be able to prosecute those I believe innocent or defend those I know to be guilty.

    I respect those who can do those jobs. I just do not respect those that bend the law till it breaks in half and shatters into a million people. I can think of a few lawyers like that. OJ Simpson trial in the mid-90’s comes to mind.

  5. I tried to watch, for a friend of mine who raved about it.

    After 5-6 painful to watch shows, I had to stop, for my own sanity.

    4’7 ft tall black gang leaders are not realistic.

    I was waiting for the Full House Music to start whenever Bates was going to say something “corny” to a judge or panel of judges. TO my surprise, the music started right on que.

    Worst cheese whiz writing I think I have ever seen. I think Brady Bunch was better.

    I feel really sorry for Bates. That’s why I made it 5-6 episodes. I am not even an actor, but if i read this script, I would have walked away.

    It’s crap. And yelling at the tv, only caused more stress, not relaxation.

    • All true. It is sad that an actor of Bates’ talents and credentials had to take something like this—makes me think she is either desperate, or not too bright. Because the show makes Aaron Spelling look like Tom Stoppard.

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