Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers

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Andy Nelson: Do I need a lawyer?

Gibbs: Only if you're feeling guilty.
NCIS, "Once a Hero"

In crime dramas, when someone is arrested, he is read his Miranda Rights, "You have the right to remain silent," "You have the right to an attorney," etc. It seems, however, that all good, law-abiding citizens are willing to waive their rights and talk to the police without any qualms at all. But as soon as someone demands a lawyer, or refuses to talk without one, you know instantly that he is a sleazeball. Maybe not the one the police are actually seeking, but he is definitely someone of ill repute.

In fact, this trope is so pervasive that it's Averted just as often as it is played straight. The bad guy may refuse to call his lawyer, just to throw the detectives off his scent. Or someone completely innocent may call his lawyer, simply because he knows his rights.

This has no bearing on Real Life. Any Law teacher can tell you that if you're arrested or the police think you committed a crime, you shouldn't talk to them except to ask for a lawyer. In TV Land, only one or two crimes ever happen at the same time, while in reality, there are a lot more. You may want to help the police catch a crook, but in doing so, you may accidentally implicate yourself in another crime, or the same crime.

This is a subtrope of Artistic License: Law. See also Be as Unhelpful as Possible.

Examples of Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers include:


Comics[edit | hide | hide all]

  • Completely defied in Powers when Detective Pilgrim is being questioned by Internal Affairs. As soon as she realizes how serious the investigation is, she asks for a lawyer. The internal affairs investigator tries to imply this trope, roughly saying "You know what they say about people who insist on getting their lawyer..." to which Pilgrim responds "Yeah. They say that those people are smart."


Film[edit | hide]

  • Stated as true by Jon Hamm's character in The Town. Semi-lampshaded in that he prefaces it with saying "it isn't a very civil libertarian thing" for him (a cop) to say.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Invoked and inverted in the second The Dark Tower book. Eddie has been detained on suspicion of drug smuggling (of which he is, in fact, guilty). After a lengthy interrogation, he threatens to get his lawyer involved. One of the interrogators invokes the trope directly. Eddie inverts by admitting that he doesn't currently have a lawyer, but will be retaining one as soon as he's released.
  • Semi-played straight in Discworld in general. In this case it's sort of a correlation =/= causation thing; the bad guys who ask for lawyers aren't asking for lawyers because they're bad guys, they're asking for lawyers because they have a tendency to be rich and think of themselves as above the law anyway, and they're usually asking for Mr. Slant, who is well known to be morally dubious at best anyway. Poor criminals have a tendency to not trust lawyers any more than Vimes does (of course, they also tend to be repeat offenders of much more minor crimes, with whom the Watch has an almost friendly relationship, and not the actual bad guys). Such as an Aesop can be gleaned from Discworld it seems to be that "if you're rich enough to afford a lawyer to begin with, you're that much more likely to be enough of a scumbag to abuse the privelige".

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Most crime dramas deliberately invoke this trope. The detectives will try to convince someone that as long as they talk freely and don't ask for a lawyer, they won't be suspect. The true motive, of course, is to get them to reveal their guilt or other pertinent information that a lawyer would keep them quiet about.
    • Truth in Television: The police are allowed to lie to you in an interrogation as much as they want, and for obvious reasons the first lie they will always try and sell you is 'There's no need for you to get your lawyer involved, it would only make things worse for you'. The only lie they can't tell you is that you're not allowed to ask for a lawyer, because there was a Supreme Court decision specifically forbidding them to do that, but they will still lie epically, elaborately, and at length about 'sure, you can ask for a lawyer, but here's why you wouldn't want to'.
  • Law and Order: There's about a 50/50 chance that someone who declines a lawyer and says "I've got nothing to hide" is implied to be bluffing.
    • Averted and played straight at the same time in one episode of Law and Order. The police have a list of suspects that they want to get blood samples from. Everyone agrees except one guy, who is promptly arrested as no one else matched and immediately asks for his lawyer and it goes to trial. Later, it turns out he was completely innocent and just thought the taking of his blood was an unnecessary intrusion on his privacy. When he asks McCoy for an apology, McCoy refuses, and chastises him for wasting their time!
  • There was an episode of Criminal Minds where this was averted, sort of: the killer keeps insisting that he doesn't need a lawyer, but this isn't a ploy to appear innocent, it's because he doesn't realise he's guilty.
  • On NYPD Blue, the detectives would regularly play good cop on a perp, saying he should confess and he'll get a lighter sentence, etc. They'd do practically anything to keep someone from calling his lawyer.

Perp Bob: I know my rights...
Detective Alice: Oh, now, you don't want to do that. If you call a lawyer I can't help you.

    • No matter how much they hated the perp for perping, the detectives tried to come off as friendly...until they got the confession.
  • Played straight in an episode of Las Vegas, when Danny is falsely being accused of sexual harassment.
  • Generally averted on The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford, the clear hero, would always immediately request to speak to an attorney after being arrested. Conversely, total sleazeball Angel Martin always tried to talk immediately.
  • Constantly on Bones. Even if a person isn't the killer, once they call a lawyer you can tell they're going to be bad in one way or another.
  • Very prevalent in Castle. If a suspect is the least bit law-savvy, the characters will state among themselves, "He's lawyering up." and treat it as the worst thing in the world that he is even allowed to do this.
    • But subverted, because people who lawyer up turn out to be innocent about half the time.
    • One episode played with this, where a well-to-do woman brought in for questioning (and not even as a suspect) comes in with about a dozen lawyers. In this case, though, it wasn't used to make her look guilty, but to make her look like a Rich Bitch who felt she was above such petty concerns as law or justice.
    • In one episode, a dominatrix is thought to be a murderer because she asks for a lawyer in the middle of questioning. When she turns out to be innocent, it's decided that she insisted on a lawyer simply to be unhelpful in a show of dominance.
      • Of course, the dominatrix was a former lawyer, so...
  • In the season 5 finale of Dexter, the other characters (all police officers) treat Detective Quinn this way when he requests to speak with an attorney when it's likely that he might be implicated in a crime that he didn't actually commit.
  • Subverted in an episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit when a criminal waives his right to an attorney and chooses to confess. It turns out he already had a pending case, and since his lawyer wasn't present, the confession and everything that follows are inadmissible.
  • Without a Trace had an innocent man confess to a crime after hours of Perp Sweating; Viv suggested he might be innocent because he didn't ask for his lawyer during that whole time.
  • Deliberately used as a red herring in one of the Eagle Eye Mysteries challenge cases where one of the suspects is uncooperative and demands a lawyer. If you accuse her of the crime, her careful explanation of innocence assumes that you did so primarily because of that reason.
  • Subverted in Homicide: Life on the Street. The "Documentary" Episode discussed this at length by implying that it is only natural for a man, even an innocent one, who has been arrested, accused of a Violent crime, dealing with hostile or indifferent officers and generally terrified to ask for an attorney. They also show that the reason many criminals don't ask for Legal Aid is that they fear being charged without saying their piece or offering an explanation.
  • One Shark episode featured a serial killer named Wayne Callison dismissing his lawyer and making his own defense against five murder charges and an attempted murder. Prosecutor Sebastian Stark feared having no lawyer would help Callison look innocent.
  • Cold Squad:
    • Exploited in "Personal Politics": the suspect asks to speak with his lawyer, but the detectives say that there's no need to get a lawyer involved, they just need him to explain his alibi. Wanting to appear helpful, he does so—and then the detectives immediately tear the alibi apart, having previously questioned the other people involved, and merely needing him to either confess or get caught in an obvious lie.
    • In "All in the Family," the fact that a suspect not only got a lawyer, but got an expensive lawyer, provides a clue that he's guilty of more than the police knew about.
  • This is commonly averted in Harry's Law; the suspects in violent crimes who hire Harry are almost always innocent or in a moral grey area.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In Mass Effect 2, at least half of Elias Kelham's dialogue when you have him arrested consists of "I want to see my lawyer." The other half consists of "Come on, hit me. I dare you." On the other hand, informing that you are a Spectre, and therefore have the legal sanction to not only deny him access to a lawyer but also to torture or even kill him all you want, will (for obvious reasons) cause him to talk immediately. Either way, going into the interrogation you do actually immediately know that Kelham is a crime boss and that he's already ordered an assassination, so calling for the lawyer is not, itself, treated as a flashing sign that he's a badguy.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  1. "I didn't do anything wrong, so can I go now?"
  2. "Mr. Troper seemed uneasy, despite claiming he had nothing to hide, yet constantly asked to be released, as if he did have something to hide. After all, why would a seemingly innocent man be so nervous around police?"
  3. if you make assumptions about the crime and are right, it looks like you have knowledge of the crime that the police never gave you