We should stop watching “Suits”

in Opinion by

*This piece is written by guest writer Jake Zeng*

Three minutes and twenty-seven seconds into the first episode of Suits, Harvey Specter—one of its two main characters—commits his first crime. Just a minute later, Mike Ross—the other main character—commits his. Around the twenty-minute mark, after lovingly visiting his grandma, Mike commits yet another crime—then after that crime fails, Mike and Harvey meet and decide to commit a crime together.

That was an extremely bastardized version of Suits’s premiere. What the show wants you to see is that Harvey took advantage of his client’s hubris and manipulated him into signing a huge business deal. Then, Mike used his extraordinary memory—which later in the show, makes him an outstanding lawyer—to cheat on the LSAT and get another person a high score, which is how he makes a living. Afterward, Mike’s then-best friend Trevor hires him to help him execute a drug deal, which turned out to be a sting operation set up by the cops. Defeated, Mike fled into the very room where Harvey was interviewing his prospective associates. Upon discovering Mike’s talents, Harvey decided to bring Mike on as his protegé despite him not having a law degree.

What I’m illustrating here is very simple. Suits attempts to trivialize and glamorize highly unethical actions in and outside of the legal field, and it hides its morally questionable premise with witty one-liners and charismatic protagonists. The new wave of interest in the legal field spurred by its streaming popularity will produce aspiring lawyers who care more about the fame and money of working in Big Law than the struggling individuals who both need and deserve legal assistance the most. And no matter how entertaining it may be to see Mike, Harvey and company con their clients, rival attorneys, judges, and juries, their actions would never fly in the real world. This exposes a reality we don’t want to admit: the continued popularity of Suits is terrible for the legal profession.

Two caveats before I get into my actual argument. One, SPOILERS AHEAD. Two, for ease of reference, I’m going to be using examples/anecdotes primarily from Suits’s early episodes as well as the most major plot points because that’s what I remember—but this doesn’t mean these are the only examples. If I decided to go through the effort of rewatching Suits for this piece, I would find so much more damning evidence.

I know how much everyone loves all the members of Pearson-Specter—and I still do—but this piece is a culmination of the question I’ve asked since I first began watching the show: “Is it a good thing that this is what people think of when they imagine our legal system?” I’ve finally successfully convinced myself, and now I’ll try my best to convince you. I’ll give you a three-pronged advocacy.

1. The firm takes cases with doubtful morality

Pearson-Specter, as your conventional New York Big Law firm, defends primarily corporations and deep-pocketed individuals. What do we all know about wealthy businesses and wealthy businessmen? They aren’t exactly morally upstanding people. When Harvey is assigned a pro bono (free of charge) case in the show’s pilot, he immediately delegates it to Mike, under the pretense that it’s not as important (it’s a quid pro quo sexual harassment lawsuit, which is easily much more important than the “hey, this company is losing a lot of money” cases the firm usually deals with.)

Season 1, Episode 4 (appropriately called “Dirty Little Secrets”) surrounds name partner Jessica Pearson’s ex-husband, who heads a medicinal company accused of producing a defective ALS drug, which is causing people to die as a side effect. Later in the episode, it’s exposed that the CEO’s girlfriend is the one who falsified medical data to fast-track the drug through FDA trials—and the unusual settlement comes in the form of giving six ALS patients partial ownership over the company to make sure research goes well. That’s cool and all, but what about the millions who supposedly died from taking this drug? In any real-life case, there would be a huge economic fallout against the company to monetarily compensate their families and pay for any medical bills of those who are still suffering the drug’s side effects, but it gets simply combed over by the show.

But perhaps the most glaring culprit of this phenomenon is Ava Hessington in Season 3. She’s the head of an oil company that’s been accused of paying bribes to corrupt governments in return for access to their oil pipelines. Her justification? That it’s “standard practice” for oil companies to do so. Later, she says she did it to ensure the governments would “protect innocents”—ignoring the fact that the government had been linked to the murder of protestors, and perhaps even worse, the fact that she paid a corrupt government. How does she know what they’re going to do with the money? In the end—for plot purposes, of course—she gets off scot-free.

So to recap, the good lawyers at Pearson-Specter successfully used their legal knowledge and quick wit to get a Big Pharma company out of paying damages for the deaths of millions and a Big Oil company out of being held criminally liable for the deaths of protestors and the bribery of a corrupt foreign government. Just a normal Friday afternoon for Mike, Harvey and the gang.

2. The lawyers utilize dirty—and often illegal—tactics

LegalEagle has a great analysis on this—Harvey, the guy we’re supposed to look up to through the series’s narrative, would have realistically gotten disbarred multiple times within just the first half of the show’s first episode. But that’s just a tiny fraction of everything our protagonists do through the rest of the show.

In Season 1, Episode 3, Harvey and Mike deal with the company McKernon Motors, which has just brought in a new CEO, Robert Stensland. Stensland’s vision for the company is offshoring its manufacturing since the company carries name value alone. The firm spends the rest of the episode attempting a coup against Stensland, and I’ll let the Suits Wiki attempt to justify this:

“As a lawyer and a racing junkie, Harvey knows that these plans will jeopardize the company, which would in turn affect the firm through its connection.”

There are two glaring problems with this.

  1. In no real-world situation would a company’s lawyer meddle in corporate affairs like this. If McKernon Motors was a real company, Pearson-Specter would just be handling the transition of power between CEOs—making sure the proper documentation is signed, filling any necessary paperwork, etc. Harvey using his influence within the company to oust its new CEO would probably even amount to legal malpractice if this case actually happened.
  2. How does Harvey being a “lawyer and racing junkie” give him more expertise on what will make McKernon Motors more money than the CEO himself? Mind you, CEOs typically occupy high-level leadership positions for the company for several years or otherwise work intimately with the company before they’re promoted. The hours we spend with the protagonists trick us into thinking that they’re the ultimate authority on any legal or business issue, but that’s just not the case here.

But most conspicuously, we have the multi-season-long storyline of Mike Ross operating without a bar license. The craziest thing is that there were so many ways this crime could have been avoided. They could have sent Mike to any law school and made him take the bar exam. Instead, they skip all those steps and immediately (and illegally, for that matter) put him on multi-million-dollar cases.

At least there’s an implicit justification for this. Mike has illegally taken the bar exam, impersonating other people, in the past and thus knows what’s required to operate as a lawyer. This should, logically, clear him of any fault. But that’s not how the law works—context is irrelevant when there’s been a clear violation. The bar licensing requirement exists to safeguard against the risk of someone unqualified practicing law. For this requirement to have any authority, it needs to be enforced unconditionally, punishing Mike Ross as hard as it would punish a random person who never passed high school taking a legal case.

Because what if Mike Ross wasn’t Mike Ross? Ignore the plot armor and what we know about the show—what if Harvey was wrong about this stranger he just met (running from a drug bust, mind you) being a legal mastermind? If Harvey realized at any point during the first season that Mike didn’t know as much about the law as he claimed, he wouldn’t even have been able to remove him, since Mike immediately blackmailed him on his first day at the firm, threatening to report the fact that he had hired Mike despite knowing he didn’t have a law degree. We’re conditioned, through watching hours of this show, to justify the firm’s actions. But a few months removed from watching Suits, I’ve successfully realized that they’re not all defensible.

3. The characters never face any consequences

In Breaking Bad, we see Walter White’s descent from an innocent, mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a ruthless, violent drug overlord. But as we see him do it, we see how it makes him lose all respect from his family, how the people he’s closest to start to hate him, and how—at the end of the series—his desire for more and more power makes him lose everything. The message the show sends is very obvious: what Walt did to pay for his cancer treatment may have been justified. But he deserved the consequences that came to him as a result.

But Suits lacks any sort of implications for everything Mike, Harvey and the rest of the firm do for the “greater good” of the firm. In the premiere, Harvey tricks a big client into taking a deal by handing him fake paperwork. He gets found out and should have been disbarred as a result, but the only semblance of a punishment he receives is a demotion from Jessica Pearson, his boss—a demotion that’s almost immediately reverted when he blackmails Jessica under threat of exposing her violation of her duty to report misconduct—Harvey had told Jessica that he forged the papers he gave to the client, and Jessica didn’t care until they got caught. I think “you’re not sorry, you’re sorry you got caught” is a perfect way to summarize the show. 

The other real consequence we see the firm face is Mike’s trial for operating without a license. Midway through the fifth season, Mike’s hit with fraud charges for all the events of seasons past. The firm then gets to work, thinking of any possible methods they could use to cheat their way out of these (very true) charges.

Ultimately, they lose (rightfully), and Mike has to serve his sentence out in prison. Side note: They don’t even actually lose. They successfully scheme their way into persuading the jury that Mike’s not guilty, but the prosecutor intimidates them into a plea deal. But Mike (for the plot) can get out of prison early after taking a deal.

Even after this nightmare, Mike gets put back on the bar so he can continue serving as a lawyer. He is then eventually re-hired into Pearson-Specter, so it was almost like this entire trial and his time in prison was more a bump in the road than anything. In the real world, every single one of Mike’s cases would be re-tried with an actual lawyer.

But why is this bad?

Suits doesn’t just show people what lawyers do, it shows them what it’s like to be a lawyer. It builds an image of law firms and the profession altogether, creating the archetypal image of a “lawyer” and “courtroom” in the viewer’s head. This is pervasive for everyone, no matter how involved they are with the legal system—I imagine myself as Harvey Specter when I’m giving a big closing argument in mock trial. I’ve seen great mock trial and real-life trial moments be described as Suits-esque. Short-form content mediums like YouTube Shorts and Instagram reels are dominated by clips of Suits and its characters’ best moments.

An Instagram Reel showed up while writing this piece, with Harvey Specter as a participant in the brainrot marble race. (Photo/Jake Zeng)

So long as a show defined by legal manipulation is a mainstay of our pop culture, our society will associate the law with this very trickery.

But even if this doesn’t entirely encourage individuals to swindle their way through the world of law, it at minimum desensitizes viewers to the illegal activities of Suits’s characters, trivializing the very real impacts that it has on their clients, their cases’ victims, etc. Legal codes prohibit certain things for a reason: there’s an immense risk of harm created each time those rules are broken. Every single time Harvey manipulates a client, he breaches the duty of care that he owed to them since the moment Pearson-Specter got hired. But as we get attached to Harvey; entertained by his antics and ability to smoothly deceive, we implicitly internalize our own defense for why his actions are just. That, or we completely ignore that he’s even committing unethical actions in the first place—it just becomes normal in our eyes.

Finally, let’s talk about the Suits generation of lawyer hopefuls. Suits is creating unmatched interest in the legal field; this is great, but deep down we know that the law itself does not attract them—they’re attracted by the luxuries, power and girls they think they’ll get while working in it. But Suits glorifies law in a way that makes it lose its most important aspect—the human element. The defining moment of a real lawyer’s career isn’t a snappy retort, a great objection battle, or an outstanding closing argument. It’s fighting to get their client out of jail—or fighting to get a criminal defendant put away. It’s rightfully winning money for a client who deserved it. Big Law represents the vast minority of firms, and lawyers like Mike, Harvey and Louis are few and far between. If everyone wants to be the main character, there’s no one left to serve the ones the big firms leave behind—the everyday people who need just as much help as multinational corporations do.


At the end of season one, Trevor exposes Mike for doing all this legal work without a license. We, as the audience, are enraged at Trevor even having the audacity to attempt such a betrayal. But remove our attachment to the show’s beloved characters; remove our predisposition to justify Mike’s and Harvey’s actions, and think about this scenario devoid of all context. Yes, Trevor did do this out of spite for Mike. But what Trevor did was expose someone illegally operating without a bar license at a firm that periodically defends morally dubious individuals and defrauds its clients. That doesn’t sound bad to someone who’s never watched the show and gotten attached to Mike.

In the real world, consequences are consequences. Donna destroyed evidence in Season 2, and she deserves to be held criminally liable no matter how sympathetic we are to her panic—parents still go to jail for robbing stores to feed their families. Ava Hessington bribed a foreign government, even if it happened with good intentions—and should have gone to jail for over a decade rather than having her charges dropped. Most of all, we shouldn’t look at Mike’s time in jail as a pitiful event, but him finally facing the punishment he deserved.

I know that nobody will stop watching Suits after reading this. Even I won’t stop watching it after going through all the effort of critically analyzing it and writing this piece. All I’m asking you is to fully commit to the idea of moral separation, look past the glamorization of back-door schemes and betrayals, and watch Suits as a guilty pleasure—not as a true reflection of the legal industry.

*If you are interested in guest writing, please contact [email protected]*