A legal drama or a courtroom drama is a subgenre of drama and crime fiction. Law enforcement, crime, detective-based mystery solving, lawyer work, civil litigation, etc., are all possible focuses of legal dramas. Common subgenres of legal dramas include detective dramas, police dramas, courtroom dramas, legal thrillers, etc. Legal dramas appear in many forms of media, including novels, plays, television shows, and films. Legal drama sometimes overlap with crime drama, most notably in the case of Law & Order. Most crime drama focus on crime investigation and does not feature the court room. An early example of this overlapping form was Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, in which the eponymous trial lawyer would usually defend his clients from their murder charges by investigating the crime before the trial, and dramatically revealing the actual perpetrator during the closing courtroom scene, by calling some other person to the stand and interrogating him or her into confessing in open court:
- either of having committed the crime
- or of having witnessed the crime being perpetrated by someone other than Mason's client, the defendant.
It is widely believed by most practicing lawyers that legal dramas result in the general public having misconceptions about the legal process. Many of these misconceptions result from the desire to create an interesting story. For example, conflict between parties make for an interesting story, which is why legal dramas emphasize the trial and ignore the fact that the vast majority of civil and criminal cases in the United States are settled out of court. Legal dramas also focus on situations where there is an obvious injustice or ones in which either the plaintiff or defendant is very interesting and unusual.
There have been successful legal dramas both serious and comedic. Notable examples of serious legal dramas that deal with the difficulties and the dark side of the law are The Practice and Law & Order. These shows often deal with the morals of dealing with people such as murderers, rapists, con artists, amoral lawyers, insane people, etc. and the difficulty of defending innocents found in situations where spectators and the public find the person to be dishonorable and cruel but, in actuality, were innocent people who were in the wrong situation at the wrong time. While there are comedic legal dramas, these usually deal less with murder cases and more on cases that deal with issues such as divorce, sex, cheating and accidents portrayed in a comedic fashion. The two most notable examples of this type of legal drama are Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, both of which David E. Kelley created and produced.
Rarely do any legal dramas on television not focus on the battle between two opposing sides through litigation. In reality, more often than not, most lawsuits are resolved through a settlement before ever going to court; shows like Damages, Suits, and occasionally The Good Wife, do attempt to portray this.
Legal dramas are becoming more in demand from the public and becoming more popular for many people to watch and beginning to feature stronger female leads.
The American Bar Association published a list of the 12 best trial plays, noting that the transition from film to the stage is sometimes difficult. There is also an extended honorable mention list.