“Objection, your Honor!” Every legal drama fan has always wanted to say this line inside a courtroom, one of the best settings for an intricate and powerful debate between characters, where the stakes are so high the viewer finds themselves as stressed as the person being accused of the crime.
Legal dramas have been popular for a long time. In 1957 the lawyer Perry Mason appeared on television for the first time on a show named after him. One of the first long-lasting TV series, running nine seasons, the show was one of the first to deal with legal cases which the viewer is so used to seeing today; it’s come full-circle, as HBO released a remake of the show in 2020. The Defenders followed suit in 1961, and before long, the history of television was filled with legal dramas.
Updated February 8th, 2023: If you’re a fan of gripping legal dramas, you’ll be happy to know this article has been updated with additional content and shows.
Since then, multiple shows have aired that use the courtroom as a battlefield. Some follow real-life stories, and others are completely fiction. Intense debates, intriguing characters, and unbelievable cases are a must in all stories. Here are the best legal drama series ranked.
Washington’s best fixer had to be on the list. Even though Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) does not practice law, she is a former lawyer who uses all her knowledge to help her clients – and screw over anyone who dares go against her. The romance between her and the president, Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn), is (mostly) the main focus of Scandal.
However, it doesn’t stop Pope from doing her job well and intelligently. After leaving the White House, Olivia Pope is one of the best fixers for politicians in the capital. There is more to the story of why she left such a prestigious job and why she is so good at what she does, making this one of the few great legal dramas led more by a character than by legal cases.
A show that has it all: comedy, romance, and, of course, legal debates that leave the viewer hanging on every word. When Mike gets caught with a suitcase filled with marijuana and pretending to be a lawyer, Harvey is intrigued. He tends proceeds to mentor Mike while keeping his secret safe. But everyone knows that secrets have a tendency to get out, especially in the legal environment.
The back and forth between the main duo of Suits, Harvey (Gabriel Macht) and Mike (Patrick J. Adams), creates wonderful banter, and all the challenges and movie references in the show created a fun atmosphere that contrasted with the serious cases they dealt with. After nine seasons, the characters remained the foundation of why the show was so good, always leaving the audience wanting more.
8 The Practice
With a winning blend of diverse characters, compelling legal cases and much needed light-hearted humor to alleviate its hefty subject matter, The Practice takes place at a Boston law firm struggling to keep its head above water as its talented partners find their moral compasses compromised by their difficult cases.
The series centers on the fierce and determined lawyer Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott), the firm’s senior partner and founder who acquires a diverse and colorful array of savvy workers who help defend some of society’s more unscrupulous individuals. During its successful eight season run, The Practice was the recipient of numerous accolades including multiple Emmys, Golden Globes and a Peabody Award, and set itself apart due to its storylines featuring “people who walk a moral tightrope.”
A series with killer performances by Glenn Close and Rose Byrne, Damages is a must-watch. As a borderline sociopath, Close once again dominates the screen the second she steps into the frame. The series follows a cutthroat lawyer who is not afraid to do what she needs with her fresh-out-of-law-school assistant: which becomes a recipe for disaster (and an unbelievably awesome original FX TV show).
This is not a case-per-episode legal show; the audience follows the development of a case per season, which gives more time to Close’s character to show her teeth and get her clients the best result. Be aware, the series is not afraid to kill the main characters, and is almost written as ruthlessly as some of them.
Legendary screen star Andy Griffith delivered a sensational performance as the titular criminal defense attorney in the long-running and critically-lauded show Matlock, which follows the highly sought after and passionate Atlanta lawyer as he takes on high-profile cases that he always manages to win by proving reasonable doubt regarding his client’s guilt.
Famous for his impassioned courtroom monologues in which he stunningly identifies the true culprit in dramatic fashion, Matlock went on to become one of television’s most iconic attorneys with the show lasting for nine seasons; its popularity has led to a reboot series being ordered through CBS, with Kathy Bates attached to lead the program as Madeline Matlock.
5 The Good Wife
The Good Wife is one of the most beloved legal dramas to this day. Following Alicia Flowick (Julianna Margulies) and her journey to recover her professional life after her husband is caught in a sex scandal and sent to jail, the character balances motherhood, being a woman in a male-dominated environment, and a case per week, while always remaining calm.
A show that definitely passes the Bechdel test (two female characters have to have names and speak entire conversations without mentioning a man), this is a good watch for those who want a grown-up approach to many subjects, including finding yourself at an older age and love.
4 American Crime Story
A show that is very different from Ryan Murphy’s previous creations (Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, etc.), this anthology series is as complex as the real-life cases they portray. The first season of American Crime Story, The People VS O.J. Simpson, was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences and followed the gripping court case of the Simpson trial.
The same acclaim happened with the other seasons, The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Impeachment (even though it received a lower rating on Rotten Tomatoes than the past two seasons, despite incredible performances from Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein). The show is a perfect pick for true-crime fans and legal drama TV show fans.
3 Better Call Saul
One of the most successful spin-offs of all time, Better Call Saul, dives into the life of one of television’s most iconic lawyers: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). For Breaking Bad fans, and those new to the world created by Vince Gillian, this story is full of beloved characters from its origin series.
Set before Breaking Bad, some during and even hinting at a future for the character, the show is intricate and impossible to stop watching. A tale that leads to the unforgettable character of the sketchy lawyer who audiences saw counseling Walter White (Bryan Cranston), this narrative is anything but predictable.
2 How To Get Away With Murder
The Shondaland (Shonda Rhimes) show with the Academy Award Winner, Viola Davis, had to be on this list. A story that could be considered a thriller, but that had such a focus on the legal elements (of, well, getting away with murder) is a great example of a legal drama that is not procedural but serialized.
A gripping story from the first season to the last, this show is a must-watch for anyone who likes legal dramas, especially ones with incredibly high stakes and various plot twists. Telling the story of law professor Analise Keating and the five students she chooses to mentor, they will find themselves in worse situations than their clients.
1 Law and Order: SVU
Probably the most iconic and longest-running legal drama series on television, Law and Order: SVU has to be the number one on this list. It is extremely hard for a series to run for over 20 years (Grey’s Anatomy is getting there) and stay relevant.
One of the many reasons it has such a largely female audience is that, before most shows, SVU took sexual assault and sexual consent seriously. Because the division the characters work in deals with sex crimes, the show candidly started discussions of subjects that were considered taboo and too much for prime time years before #MeToo.