That's Not How Lawyers Work: The Suits Effect

We’ve used this space to provide fictional legal advice to some of our favorite shows (see our Silicon Valley and Ballers discussions), but the time has come for us to provide a real service to the public by righting the wrongs of Meghan Markle’s last foray into television before becoming a part of British royalty.

We’re speaking, of course, of USA Network’s long-running legal drama, Suits, which just entered its final season while simultaneously kicking off its first spinoff, Pearson.

For the uninitiated, Suits followed the story of young prodigy Mike Ross and his rise through the ranks of one of New York’s most prestigious law firms. Under the tutelage of “super lawyer” Harvey Specter, Mike tackled corporate espionage, inter-office politics, and even a stint in prison, all while spending a whole lot of time doing commendable pro bono work for a legal aid clinic.  Mike eventually leaves town (as does a certain Royal), and so the final seasons of the series have focused on Harvey Specter’s stewardship of his firm and personal life.

Now, there’s no problem with putting a bunch of witty, good-looking characters together to exchange legal banter in between intros and outros arranged to various tracks by the Black Keys and Imagine Dragons.  And we fully embrace and share the passion expressed by the characters in advocating for their clients. However, there is a problem with the show’s depiction of lawyers. 

Suits presents numerous fictions about what lawyers do and how they work.  As discussed below, these falsehoods are entertaining, but they create impressions of lawyers that are so far from reality that they can warp a person’s perception of the legal process and set unreasonable expectations for how attorneys should act and how cases should proceed.  Here are just a few of the ways that Suits perpetuates these myths, and how to separate fact from fiction. 

1.     A Bar License Is Not Optional.  

The original hook for Suits revolved around Mike’s photographic memory and its ability to make him an LSAT-taking wonderkid who fakes his way into a prestigious firm, without having gone through the trouble of attending law school or passing the bar. 

Let’s just set the record straight: you need a license to practice law.  Full stop.  There are occasional stories about people faking their way into law school, or even into law firms, but the second their duplicity is discovered, they are cut loose and reported to the authorities. No law firm that is serious about staying in business would run the risk of supporting the unauthorized practice of law in this way. 

2.     “Dramatic Drop-ins” Are Not Real, And Neither Are “Magic Words.”  

One of the show’s favorite plot devices is the “dramatic drop-in,” where attorneys suddenly show up in the office of the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company, or opposing counsel’s office, to try and strong-arm their way to victory.  Other popular locations include coffee shops, fancy restaurants, and hot dog/bagel carts. 

In the actual world we live in, lawyers use process servers to serve documents – they’re not traipsing about personally slinging subpoenas on their cases.  And corporate buildings have security desks, receptionists, and badges to scan to get up and down elevators.  Nobody just walks into the office of an attorney, let alone a big-shot CEO. 

The dramatic drop-in wouldn’t be so bad, except that Suits also uses it to set its characters up to deliver what we call “magic words.”  These are usually tightly-written heated exchanges between the characters in which the lawyer delivers a scathing soundbite before heatedly exiting, leaving the other character to stare off into the distance before dramatic music ushers the show off to a commercial break. The “magic words” lead to some pretty dramatic results: lawsuits get filed, settlement are reached, cases get dismissed, and million-dollar deals get inked.

“Magic words” are a huge problem for real attorneys because they set unrealistic expectations about how the law works.  For example, lawyers cannot “talk” a case into or out of existence: entire codes of procedure exist to shepherd cases through the system, and lawyers stick to those rules because they provide a process to which all the parties must adhere.  Attorneys know these rules and procedures and advocate for their clients within them, but ultimately, that process - and not “magic words” - will be used to settle the case or try it in front of a judge or jury.

3.     The Judicial Process Does Not Move at Warp Speed.

Speaking of process, Suits often depicts cases going from filing to trial in mere days.  A typical episode often includes a judge giving the parties 24 or 48 hours to brief “motions to dismiss” because the court is ready for trial “next week.”  Complaints, briefs, and complicated corporate deals are generated in an afternoon or overnight, as if lawyerly writing is no different than a high school student pumping out an essay for class that he or she forgot to write.

If you file a lawsuit, you should be prepared for it to take some time.  Nothing happens overnight, and due process considerations necessarily require that deadlines be reasonable.  The federal and state codes of procedure provide rules that give litigants several weeks or sometimes even months to act.  Depending on the size and complexity of a case, it can take years before a case is resolved.

4.     Lawyers Are Not (and Should Not Be Presenting Themselves As) Omnipotent.

In the beginning, Suits used Mike Ross’ photographic memory to explain how he could recite cases, statutes, and other legal documents verbatim, even when he had not seen said writings in years.  It was a neat trick to explain why a firm would go out of its way to retain him as a lawyer even if meant breaking the law, but as the show went on, countless other lawyers would demonstrate the same ability on subjects ranging from securities law to copyright.  The end result is that these characters are occasionally shown doing legal “research” (to be discussed below), but for the most part, they are depicted as having encyclopedic knowledge of the entire known legal universe, which they can recite with hardly a problem. 

Over time, lawyers do amass a certain degree of knowledge, but pure memorization of entire codes, cases, and other points of law is the exception, not the rule.  In fact, attorneys have an ethical obligation to actually research the law, and that is because statutes are constantly being rewritten, and case law is always in flux.  “It depends” and “I have to look into that” are two of the most common phrases lawyers use precisely because researching issues is so critical to doing what we do, and even what appears to be a minor difference in fact from one case to the next can have an impact on how a case will play out.  The law does not remain set in stone, though one’s memory can be if it is not refreshed with actual research.

5.     The Law Library is Online.  

Suits often depicts attorneys sitting in the firm library reading through books containing case law.  Those books certainly exist, but the reality is that the overwhelming majority of attorneys now conduct their legal research using online databases.  Digital subscriptions are less expensive, and they require no physical real estate.  Updates, cross references, and additional authority can be drawn up in mere seconds.  Indeed, the “old” method of legal research – which required looking in one book, cross-referencing another, and then following the trail to still other books of printed cases – has become so antiquated that most law schools no longer even teach their students how to perform legal research using printed texts.

There are attorneys who still use those case law books, and practice guides, treatises, and other periodicals are still printed and available.  But by and large, they are relics of the past, consigned to the role of providing elegant bookcase decorations in coffee shops, bars, and hit TV shows like Suits.

Suits’ aversion to showing its lawyers engaged in online research also extends to working on computers generally: for some reason, every lawyer on the show works on a tiny laptop, rather than on a computer connected to a full-sized monitor and keyboard.  Unless one wishes to develop severe carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain in his or her first year of practice, a full-sized monitor and keyboard is the norm.

6.     Discovery Is A Process.

A deposition is an oral examination of a party or witness in which an attorney asks questions of that party or witness, under oath, which is then transcribed (and possibly video recorded) for future use in the case.  They all kind of look the same, and whether you practice in a big city or small town, the look and feel of a deposition is fairly standard.

Suits’ depictions of depositions are highly entertaining, and highly inaccurate.  The show’s usual setup goes like this: two lawyers are on one side of a long conference table with a single sheet of paper in front of them.  Across from them sits a witness.  Sometimes that witness has a lawyer, sometimes she or he does not.  In between the protagonists is a small video camera.  That camera is propped on a tiny tripod and is ostensibly recording the deposition, which lasts about five minutes before everyone starts screaming at each other and someone storms out.  Four-letter words are the norm, not the exception.

In real life, there is usually only one lawyer for each party asking questions, though a second attorney may be present to assist the first with documents.  They typically have at least a notepad and a pen, and are usually sitting with a box of documents, which are presented to the witness for questioning.  Every deposition has a court reporter taking down the words of every party in the room.  If the deposition is videotaped, the court reporting company is responsible for sending a videographer with his or her camera to do the recording.  Screaming and cussing during a deposition is a big no-no, because again, everything you say is recorded.  Depositions can last hours, and it is rare for a party to just get up and leave in the middle of a deposition given the potential risk of incurring monetary sanctions for abuse of the discovery process.  Depositions can make or break a case, and so they are not teed up on a whim.   

Meanwhile, Suits leaves out all of the written discovery that takes place in civil litigation.  Requests for documents, demands for responses to written questions, and other forms of written discovery result in extended periods of document review and negotiations for additional documents.  Cases are often won and lost in the documentary minutiae, but that does not make for compelling television.


These are just a few areas where Suits exaggerates the life of civil litigators.  It’s entertaining stuff, but by creating a false sense of what lawyers do on a daily basis, a person in need of an attorney may be more likely to hire a braggadocios attorney who “looks and sounds” the part but may be ill-suited to the case at hand.  Moreover, that person may expect that they just need to hire the “right” lawyer who will say or do the “right” thing, and suddenly, the case will disappear, or they will instantly receive a financial windfall.  We wish that’s how it worked, but that simply is not the case.

Instead, look for an attorney that comes highly recommended by friends, business partners, or more remote references who have hired and trust that lawyer.  Talk to the attorney and get a feel for whether this person is able to listen to your questions and provide answers that satisfactorily address your particular concerns, whether the attorney has experience handling your particular kind of matter, and whether he or she can provide the care and attention your matter deserves.  In the end, remember that you are hiring someone to counsel you and work on your behalf.  Make sure you trust that person as they are, and not based on a televised “idea” of what that person should be.