While the police side of Law and Order has always been the focus, the court side is just as important.
The mothership Law and Order series had an even balance between the cops investigating the crimes and the prosecutors in court. The first season of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was all about the cops but later brought just as much to the courtroom drama.
This has allowed a bevy of actors to appear across the franchise in various lawyer roles. Most of them are defense attorneys, low-key character actors who make multiple appearances. There are also the brief ADAs who took over for a few episodes at a time.
Some of these lawyers are able to make a significant impact on viewers to pop up consistently. While the defense attorneys are prominent, some on the prosecutor’s side are good, especially when they’re fleshed out.
It helps when the actor is able to make an otherwise small role far more notable. While there are plenty of examples, these are ten of the best recurring lawyer characters in the Law and Order franchise to show how the legal side is the show’s true heart.
The latest in the long life of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit Bureau Chiefs, Vanessa Hadid is a complex character.
On the one hand, she can appear to care more about getting on the news and her conviction rate than the victims. She puts down Carisi’s methods in court and even criticizes Benson’s tactics.
However, Hadid has been shown to be very strident on justice by any means. She proved herself when a good friend was implicated in a major scam. Rather than cover it up, Hadid went undercover to trick him into a confession.
Zuleikha Robinson is great at balancing the various sides of Hadid and holding her own against Benson. Sometimes, she may be hard to root for, but Hadid is believable as the steely boss in this difficult world.
Almost any time Andre Braugher is on television, he’s fantastic. The actor is compelling, from his Emmy-winning turn in Homicide Life on the Street to getting laughs on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So it’s no wonder he was terrific on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Debuting in Season 13’s True Believers, Ellis had once represented drug dealers. After winning a huge civil suit, he became an advocate against police misconduct.
While Ellis is a tough foe in court, the team is forced to admit he has a point on how some people need their civil rights defended. Munch has a deep respect for him and Benson hired Ellis to defend her half-brother Simon on false drug charges.
Braugher brought warmth to the role as Ellis is a worthy opponent for the crew who can sometimes be an ally in the fight for justice.
A one-time prosecutor, Rita Calhoun not only switched sides but went full-tilt into criminal defense.
She and Benson had been friends to the point Benson got Rita to defend her when she was accused of murdering Wiliam Lewis. Elizabeth Marvel showed Rita’s great heart, keeping information quiet to help Benson.
However, the friendship soured when Rita went out of her way to defend rich and powerful people accused of heinous crimes, even when she knew they were guilty. Benson couldn’t believe Rita would aid the very scumbags she once tried to put away.
In The Long Arm of the Witness, Rita snaps that people like this have the power, so she has adopted the mantra “if you can’t beat them, join them.” It was sad to see this once proud advocate slide into the dark side.
Nikki Staines learned the hard way that when you play with fire, you eventually get burned.
The sharp defense attorney would clash with the SVU team several times. Callie Thorne brought a nice gravitas to the part with Nikki often defending accused rapists and not above shaming a victim to get her client acquitted.
But in Blackout, Nikki herself was attacked by the twisted Ron Miller (Titus Welliver), who also threatened her daughter. It made Nikki realize what kind of people she had been defending for so long.
Nikki later aided the team in bringing Miller to justice. She appeared to be moving into becoming an advocate as her own experience has Staines fighting for the right side.
Law and Order has always enjoyed casting some noted Broadway actors for the various series. One of the best was Tovah Feldshuh as Danielle Melnick.
The feisty defense attorney was a regular foe of Jack McCoy in the courtroom. Sharp and savvy with a wicked sense of humor, Melnick could risk contempt of court to defend her clients.
A major episode was Season 13’s Open Season when Melnick was horrified to discover her client was using her to send messages to his underlings on eliminating a witness. She still refused to break confidentiality to turn him in and ended up being shot herself.
She would recover and continue to plague McCoy in court. Chicago Justice revealed Melnick was now a judge yet still had the sharp aura that made her a standout character.
Few lawyers have managed to pull the wool over Jack McCoy’s eyes like Randy Dworkin.
When he first showed up in Law and Order, he appeared to be a bumbling fool with almost no idea how the law worked. His grandstanding tactics even had the judge openly calling him a clown.
But under all that foolishness rested a keen legal mind as Dworkin was able to take apart some witnesses and win over juries. Peter Jacobson was hilarious in the role, with Dworkin firing off jokes in between his actions.
Despite being annoying, Dworkin could win over the prosecutors to the point of sharing drinks with them after a trial. Barba even hired Dworkin to defend him on charges of second-degree murder, knowing Dworkin could get him off.
Jacobson’s performance was a reason Dworkin was a defense attorney the fans loved to hate.
Law and Order has always attracted some A-list Hollywood talent. Still, it was something when Sharon Stone did a stint on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Jo Marlowe was introduced as an interim ADA who had once been Stabler’s partner. She got a good background as she had quit as a cop after losing a pair of undercover officers and was a cancer survivor.
Stone had a steely presence in the role with the touch that her experience as a cop gave Marlowe better insight into cases (such as realizing the man she was prosecuting for arson was actually innocent).
While her run was just four episodes, Stone’s great performance made Marlowe a character fans hope might someday return to the show.
Usually, the SVU cops tended to hate defense attorneys. Yet, they had an odd soft spot for Trevor Langan.
With his dashing good looks and charm, it was little wonder the guy was a great high-priced attorney often defending corporate clients. One episode has Stabler and Benson finding Cabot on a date with Langan.
While the guy was strident at defending criminals, he had scruples in who he represented. That’s likely why, when Benson was framed for murder, Stabler and the others hired Langan to defend her.
Of course, the fun of the character is that in real life, Peter Hermann and Mariska Hargitay are married. That gives any clashes between Benson and Langan an extra spark and a reason he has more appearances (33) than any other defense attorney in the show’s history.
Before her rise to an Oscar and Emmy-winning A-lister, Viola Davis cut her teeth on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Davis starred in seven episodes from 2004 to 2008 as Donna Emmett, a top defense attorney clashing with the team. Not much was known about her background or family life, but Emmett was clearly good at her job.
Her clients ran the gamut from a corrupt cop to a doctor accused of malpractice. Emmett was a force of nature in court, able to put the cops and witnesses off-balance with her sharp questions.
The role was notable because Davis, as the actress, showcased the fantastic talent that would later turn her into one of the more respected names in Hollywood.
TV veteran Judith Light brought a fantastic presence to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s tough bureau chief.
A cool and all-business woman, Donnelly was believable bossing around Cabot and Novak, her sharp tongue even managing to put Stabler in his place.
The character wasn’t afraid to demote an underling if they messed up and handled a trial herself. She later became a judge, which put Novak in the awkward position of arguing against her former boss.
It was revealed Donnelly was driven by how, as a rookie ADA, she let a suspected killer flee under her nose. It made her a laughing stock and hardened her attitude. Years later, she was still eager to persecute that woman, even with her claiming it was self-defense.
While she hasn’t been seen in a while, Light’s performance made Donnelly one of the more compelling recurring Law and Order characters.
Law and Order Seasons 1-20 and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit Seasons 1-22 are streaming on Peacock.