Paralegals and Legal Assistants in Film and Television

Television shows and movies have portrayed paralegals, legal assistants, and legal secretaries in a variety of ways. Like other careers, movies and television have given both positive and somewhat negative representations of paralegals and legal assistants.

While the movie Erin Brockovich remains the most famous representation of a paralegal or legal assistant in film or television, other fictional characters also exist.

In the movie Eagle Eye (2008), starring Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, Monaghan plays Rachel Holloman, a hard-working single mom who works as a paralegal. In the film, Rachel says she makes $11 an hour. However, according to the National Association of Paralegal Associations (NFPA), the median annual salary for a full-time paralegal in 2006 was $49,060 or approximately $23 an hour based on a 40-hour work week. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Labor reported the average annual salary for a full-time paralegal or legal assistant in 2006 was approximately $43,000 or $21 an hour.

The character Carrie Heffernan, portrayed by Leah Remini from the syndicated television show The King of Queens, worked as a legal secretary/legal assistant for a powerhouse law firm in Manhattan. In several episodes, Carrie works on case files on her laptop at home.

In the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, one episode is entitled Mary the Paralegal (Season 1, Episode 19, original air date April 24, 2006). The character Mary the paralegal says she works at the law firm “Douglas, O’Halloran and Stamp.” Douglas, O’Halloran, and Stamp are actually the last names of the super-villains (Sarah Douglas, Jack O’Halloran, Terence Stamp) in the movie Superman II. You can find an episode summary online.

In the television show The Riches, the character Aubrey McDonald also works as a highly skilled paralegal that helps manage a number of situations. Additionally, in the television and movie series Perry Mason, the character Della Street described as “my confidential secretary” completed a number of tasks routinely performed by experienced paralegals working in a law office.

Like nursing and other professions, females comprise the majority of paralegals and legal assistants. According to the National Federal of Paralegal Associations (NFPA) 2006 Paralegal Compensation and Benefits Report, 93 percent of all respondents to the annual survey of paralegal were women. While this gender disparity may affect the representation of paralegals and legal assistants in the film and television, not all fictional portrayals of paralegals and legal assistants involve women.

In the film The Rainmaker (1997), based on the John Grisham novel, the character Deck Shifflet, portrayed by Danny DeVito, works as a self-described “paralawyer” who engages in a number of tasks commonly performed by paralegals along with a few practices that could be considered the unauthorized practice of law (UPL) or unethical. The character Shifflet graduated from law school but repeatedly failed the bar exam and also solicited clients at hospitals.

With the popularity of crime and legal dramas, the portrayal of  paralegals and legal assistants in television and motion pictures will likely continue in the future and only time will tell whether this representation will be accurate and positive.