Career advice from fictional lawyers

Atticus

From Atticus Finch to Ally McBeal: the fictional lawyers who inspired half of us to study law come forth with some career guidance of their own.

There are plenty of living, breathing role-models for wannabe associates – just check out our Big Interview series for some inspiring words from some of America's best attorneys. But some of the most memorable lawyers are the flawed, hilarious heroes of TV, movies and books – characters who have inspired students to become lawyers a thousand times over. We've chosen seven of our favourite fictional lawyers, and some of their words of wisdom that might just help you on your path.

1) “I don't think much of people who prey on other people's weaknesses - who peddle gossip, who blow up snapshots into dirty postcards.” (Perry Mason - Perry Mason)

An oldie but a goodie, Perry Mason retired from our screens in 1967, but shed plenty of wisdom along the way. He's famous for finagling admissions of guilt from hapless criminals, but his upstanding approach is a fine example of the importance of mixing integrity with just enough savvy to get your way.

2)  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Atticus Finch – To Kill A Mockingbird)

Harper Lee's classic novel is a masterclass in how to find the humanity in everyone. And it's a lesson that goes beyond the application of criminal law in a small town. Remember that your contacts are human, too, whether they're particularly obstreperous pro bono clients, or law firm recruiters who've shaken hands with hundreds of law students in one day. And compassion for others will ensure you make professional relationships that matter, years down the line.

3) “The real truth is, I probably don't want to be too happy or content. Because, then what? I actually like the quest, the search. That's the fun.” (Ally McBeal – Ally McBeal)

Okay, Ally McBeal is at least as much about Ally's own increasingly surreal neuroses as it is about the practice of law. But here, she's on to something. In an increasingly mobile career market, settling down for a solid 20-year career track to partnership and beyond isn't for everyone, and there’s reward to be found as you explore your career. Look beyond a straightforward path into junior associate life. Investigate clerkships, government roles, work for non-profits, or international travel. Our 2015 happiness survey showed associates willingly embarked on careers not expecting instant happiness – but the majority turned out to be more contented than they expected.

4) “Alan, you know, one thing you sometimes forget is, no matter how hard your day, no matter how tough your choices, how complex your ethical decisions, you always get to choose what you have for lunch.” (Denny Crane – Boston Legal)

Star Trek's William Shatner lent his highly distinctive acting style of stiff-faced melodrama to the role of a name partner struggling with senility. So let's forgive him calling you Alan for a second, and acknowledge his message, which is to be grateful for the small things. Stay sane by keeping a sense of perspective on the BigLaw bubble, and find something that keeps you level-headed, whether its exercise, volunteering, or picking triple carbs at the cafeteria.

5) “It's not bragging if it's true.” (Harvey Specter – Suits)

Super-slick operator Harvey Specter is always ready with a one-liner, but smooth-talking doesn't have to be insincere. Although the corner office is still a distant dream, having the courage to talk up your achievements is an asset to any aspiring lawyer, whether it's making the most of your resume or doing all you can to make a great impression on your summer program. Bragging tastefully is an art all lawyers must nail.

6) “There are few things in life worse than a long-winded lawyer.” (Rudy Baylor – The Rainmaker)

But don't go overboard, either. The protagonist of John Grisham's classic legal thriller is full of acerbic insights into the backstabbing world of law. It might be essential to talk yourself up a little, but in front of a judge, Rudy quickly discovers that brevity is the soul of wit.

7) “I haven't ruled out running for president. Probably won't happen, but I haven't ruled it out.” (Alicia Florrick – The Good Wife)

Alicia swaps life as a stay-at-home mother and loyal political wife for the life of a junior attorney, after her husband becomes embroiled in a sex tape scandal. She's a complicated character with a knack for keeping her cards close to her chest – and her ‘never say never’ approach is an inspiration to stay ambitious, whatever life throws at you.

8) “Better safe than sorry. That's my motto.” (Saul Goodman – Breaking Bad)

For the record, we're not advocating you imitate this thoroughly shady operator. But you can learn a thing or two from his talent for covering his tracks – he might keep up connections across the criminal underworld, but he manages to stay well away from violence or murder.  Better call Saul!

Of course, a still more sensible approach is to get advice from your law school career service, from firm contacts, and from Chambers Associate Guide – check out our reviews for the inside track from real-life lawyers, with advice worth listening to.