HBO's 'Perry Mason' and Modern Legal Practice

I grew up watching old “Perry Mason” re-runs with my mother in the 1980s. She couldn’t get enough of murder mysteries, and she often brought me along for the ride which included Perry Mason, and also Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote and everything Hercule Poirot. These shows are not at all why I became a lawyer and certainly not why I became an Estate Planning lawyer. Nor do I think they accurately portray the life of any lawyer I’ve ever come across. But they were mildly entertaining and helped fill my time before real life set in.

Recently, I’ve again found great entertainment in HBO’s new mini-series “Perry Mason”. This Mason is nothing like the 1950s character played by Raymond Burr. Rather, it’s an origin story. Matthew Rhys plays a young, inexperienced, unprincipled, down-on-his-luck version of Mason. He’s a private investigator hired by criminal defense lawyers to find evidence to exonerate their clients, by whatever means necessary. The show takes place in 1930s Los Angeles and is gritty, dark and haunted. So far, there is no easy resolution to the mystery; certainly no confessions on the stand. It’s what a murder mystery should be.

And the portrayal of lawyers and law practice is fascinating and remains relevant today. Mason seems to have simply fallen into a legal career. He is smart, curious and unconcerned about the consequences of his actions, and makes good use of these traits. He hints in Episode 4 that his father, a dairy farmer, encouraged a legal career because he wanted his son to “know what it was like to work behind a desk”. Mason’s boss – E.B. Jonathan, played by John Lithgow – plays an accomplished lawyer (an Oliver Wendell Holmes protégé) who is in his 70s, well past his prime, no longer respected by peers, and thus unable to cope with a difficult engagement. He has continued to practice law with considerable assistance from his whip-smart, ambitious assistant and paralegal, Della Street, without whom he literally cannot continue. She’s stellar and makes it clear to E.B. that she’s the one who keeps the practice going, even though his name is on the door. These are great characters and one of the best legal dramas I’ve seen in a while!