Updated on: 10/2/2014
Many people get their knowledge about the world from watching television. People see fictional doctors and they think they know how medicine works. They see fictional police officers and they think they know how law enforcement works. And they see fictional lawyers and think they know how the law works. Unfortunately, the law is not the same as what you see on television. The purpose of television drama is to entertain. It’s supposed to catch our attention and hold it through the next commercial break. It isn’t intended to give an accurate picture of how lawyers and courts really work. Because of this, television creates various myths about the law that confuse many people the first time they step into an attorney’s office.
Law is not dramatic: Television gives the impression that lawyers spend their days rushing from courtroom to courtroom making dramatic speeches, and that most cases are suspenseful battles before juries. Often, these cases will end with some dramatic surprise at the last minute that reveals the truth. In fact, most legal work is very routine; the resolution of cases depends on the experience and judgment of your attorneyrather than dramatics. As part of the litigation process, most of the evidence is shared between the attorneys of the parties involved, so there is little room for surprises, which usually do more harm than good anyway.
Most cases are settled out of court: On television, most cases are settled in court before a jury, but in reality, very few personal injury cases go to trial. Trials are risky, expensive, complicated, and slow. Therefore most cases are settled through a process of negotiation that does not involve a jury. In Washington State, more than 95% of personal injury cases are settled out of court.
Litigation is extremely slow: Television law moves very quickly because the story needs to entertain the audience. The client retains the lawyer, the case goes to trial, and everything is resolved in the same episode. In real life, the justice system is very slow. Trials are scheduled far in advance and take at least 18 to 24 months in most cases before they’re even heard by a jury. Personal injury cases often take longer because most cases aren’t resolved until the person is finished with medical treatment or has reached maximum improvement – which can take years.
It isn’t all DNA tests: Forensic science is very visual and makes for very dramatic television. That’s why it shows up so often in legal dramas. Unfortunately, this leads people to think that courts routinely use all sorts of sophisticated scientific tests in every case. In fact, such tests aren’t used nearly as often as television implies because they are time consuming, expensive, and not very reliable except under certain circumstances. In real life, most cases don’t rely on DNA and exotic lasers. They use the standard techniques of evidence, witness testimony, records, photographs, and the attorney’s experience and knowledge of the law.
Seattle personal injury attorney Chris Davis has authored several free books, as a resource for victims in accidents. To learn about general injury law in Washington State, click here to order Washington Injury Law: A Reference Guide to Accident Victims.