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Inside David E. Kelley's New Reality Show, The Law Firm:
Life? Or Something Like It?


Monday, Aug. 08, 2005

In the evolution of reality TV, I suppose it was inevitable that one day, prime-time junkies everywhere purposely would aim their remotes at a pajama-clad lawyer searching for a new roll of toilet paper before a big case.

I believe I speak for real-life lawyers everywhere when I say thank goodness that's not exactly what you get on this summer's not-yet-a-hit series, The Law Firm.

The brainchild of lawyer-turned-screenwriter David E. Kelley, The Law Firm is precisely what Kelley had, until now, vociferously opposed -- reality TV. This award-winning writer's foray into the realm of the unscripted is especially ironic (if not a wee bit beneath him), considering Kelley's tried-and-true predilection for creating fantastically quirky characters and plot lines so compelling, most of us won't even get up during the commercials.

So what is Kelley's newest project supposed to be, really? Is it L.A. Law without the script? The Practice without a plot? Ally McBeal without, well, Ally McBeal?

While the first two episodes felt a lot like People's Court on steroids, the show can be best described as The Apprentice goes courtroom.

Twelve practicing lawyers from various walks of the profession flex their legal muscles (and diverse personalities) on the air. They must, among other responsibilities, prepare and try "real" cases for "real" clients, and artfully kowtow to a "senior partner" (played by famed criminal lawyer and legal analyst Roy Black) -- all while the cameras roll.

But just how well does The Law Firm feed viewers' voyeuristic appetites for what goes on behind a lawyer's closed doors? From the break room to the bench, is The Law Firm life? Or merely something like it?

You be the judge.

Inside "The Law Firm"

In this Apprentice-inspired reality series, twelve attorneys with varied education, personalities and curb-appeal, compete for kudos and, more importantly, the hope of avoiding the axe.

But unlike The Apprentice, there is no uber-organization, like Trump's, to land a job with, and no pie-in-the-sky position to fill. What these lawyers are fighting for, is what many "real" lawyers fight for daily: Money. Two-hundred-fifty thousand dollars, to be exact; about twice an average associate's first-year salary, and certainly enough to pay off one's student loans.

Enter veteran trial attorney Roy Black, who assumes the role of "the Donald" (but with far less distracting hair). Black's reputation as a stellar criminal defense attorney precedes him. Over the course of his thirty-five year career, he's represented, most famously, William Kennedy Smith, whom he successfully defended against rape charges, and, currently, Rush Limbaugh.

Unaided by a trusty "George" or "Carolyn" of his own, Black is nevertheless omnipresent, overseeing the associates' every move -- both outside the firm, and in. Like Trump, Black's primary function is not to teach, but rather to observe and critique. And Black's eye is keen. So keen that, even without the aid of a foreshadowing lens (the camera does have a tendency to pan to a watchful but silent Black when an associate has done or said something obviously unnerving), viewers can trust he won't miss a trick. With Black at the helm, even the most experienced of the lawyers at The Firm, if not careful, just might learn something

Cases to be handled at The Firm were selected much the same way cases are selected for other popular courtroom shows, such as Judge Judy and the People's Court. In other words, the cases are real, and the litigants are real, as are the judges presiding over them (although many, if not all, of the judges have retired from the bench.)

The parties appearing on The Law Firm have agreed to be bound by the court's rulings. Which, in the reality of this reality series means, for the litigants, that little is at stake: Surely the incentive for the camera-shy plaintiffs and defendants appearing on The Law Firm is to have their legal tabs, including any judgments awarded, paid for by the show.

A Problem with the Show: Cases With Disappointingly Low Stakes and Complexity

Not surprisingly, the cases being handled by The Law Firm, thus far, seem to be run of the mill -- a small claims court's rejects.

For example, during week one, viewers got to observe a barking witness as he defended himself against the plaintiff's assertion that defendant's mean mastiffs had tried to murder her three-legged pooch. (The three-legged pooch prevailed, with the plaintiff winning the cost of the vet bills.)

Week two was no more potent, but perhaps a bit more interesting. After all, it's not everyday that a dominatrix walks into your office with a contract dispute. (Plaintiff Sabrina Belladonna lost her case, by the way).

In the real real world, cases like these likely wouldn't survive the conference room vote; the monetary stakes are simply much too low. These are the kind of cases that settle for modest sums -- and never get past the courtroom door.

Why? Because much of the time, when representing a plaintiff, attorneys will take the case on contingency -- meaning that the firm is going to spend lawyer hours and actual money (for instance, for experts' hefty fees) on the gamble that in the end, taking a chunk of the judgment or settlement will have made it all worthwhile. Contingency lawyers literally cannot afford to lose. So if you have a bad case -- or simply a very low-stakes case -- chances are only a bad lawyer is going to agree to take it. And if a good lawyer takes it, he may do so only on condition that he has broad authority to settle -- not go to court.

Defense lawyers, meanwhile, may get paid by the hour, but they still must assess the "barking defendant" in terms of that client's dollars and cents. So like plaintiffs' lawyers -- though for different reasons -- they too try to avoid costly discovery and trial proceedings in cases with modest monetary stakes. In a small case, it's almost always far cheaper to settle, than to go to court.

But how do the opposing attorneys agree on the settlement amount? Easy: Seasoned lawyers can discern fairly accurately the prognosis for winning a case at trial, so defense lawyers can adjust settlement offers -- and plaintiffs' attorneys can adjust the point at which they will accept the settlement -- accordingly.

The bottom line: Unlike at The Law Firm, cases that are likely losers (whether on the merits or because an advocate may be unable to calm a witness from having a bowel movement during cross examination), usually do not end up in trial. In real life, trials are expensive, and unless a defendant has a big insurance firm paying for his defense, a client may be well advised to settle out of court, rather than risk having to pay a judgment on top of attorneys' fees. And even big insurance companies settle frequently -- they, too, tend to know just what a given case is worth.

In this sense, then, The Law Firm is deeply unrealistic. And as it goes in the law, it may also go when it comes to luring viewers in: Will viewers care enough about these petty civil cases to make ratings soar?

When the Verdict Is In, Two Lawyers Are Out

The contestant attorneys seem to care, at least -- if only because of that $250,000 payoff. So the fact that their "clients'" cases are decidedly (at least thus far) low stakes, hasn't dissuaded the associates from acting as if the future of the free world rests upon their respective legal acumen. Realistically, though, the only high stakes are for the associates -- not the clients. And the stakes are whether they live to litigate another day.

The rules of the game are pretty simple. Each week, the Firm takes on two cases, which necessitates separating the associates into four teams; two to represent the plaintiffs, and two for the defendants.

The cameras follow the teams throughout their respective trial preparation -- a process which, unlike in real life, is very abbreviated. From "intake" -- the interviewing of the client -- to opening statement is a mere 48 hours.

After each case is decided, two of the associates' fates are sealed. The group meets back at the Firm's conference room, where Roy Black enters to the tune of ominous background music, tries to hide a smile (this is the only thing Black is not very good at), and metes out his reasoning for doing what he is about to do. Like Donald Trump, Black lays down the law with a catchphrase: Here, it's "The verdict is in, and (your name here) is out."

Cue the hissy fit, finger-pointing, and furrowed brows characteristic of any member of the legal profession who's suffered a stunning embarrassment on national television. After all, this fate is far worse, in the eyes of many, than suffering a stunning embarrassment where we usually do: In the courtroom.

A "Reality" Series That Is Less than Realistic In a Number of Ways

While over-the-top verve and nerve may make for good television (and it does), it is, for me, where the reality in this reality series comes to a screeching halt. There are some things occurring before the watchful eye of the camera that seasoned attorneys simply do not do in the real real world. Lest any viewers think lawyers are a worse breed than even our already dire reputation suggests, allow me to set the record straight.

First, in real life, lawyers do not do "the happy dance" after a win. Not ever. For the most part, we leave our dorkiness at the door once the bar is behind us. Maybe, on occasion, we might high-five a random stranger, but there is definitely no hip rocking, moon-walking, or tongue biting involved. Real lawyers are way cooler than that.

Next, any testosterone-propelled, finger-in-your-chest, break room arguments happening "behind the scenes" are strictly for the camera. Lawyers in the real real world do not act like bullies on a playground. Such behavior is verboten in a courtroom, and is simply bad form in a law firm. When a lawyer has a dispute with a colleague or co-counsel, rather than acting out like a third-grader we do what any self-respecting grown-up would do -- we buy a better car.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a lawyer in the real real world would never do what the handsome, gum-chewing, rebel lawyer (and my pick to win the show) Olivier did during week two: describe a judge's ruling as a pile of bovine excrement, to that very jurist's face. Even if the lawyer had no intention of practicing in front of that judge ever again, this move still wouldn't be within his playbook -- after all, judges in real life hold the power to sanction for contempt of court -- and that, in turn, can mean a very real stint in jail.

Come to think of it, therein lies the undeniable fantasy permeating this reality series. When you stop to think about it, there really is nothing to lose. The down-side for these attorneys isn't jail for contempt of court; it's losing a windfall, and having their television exposure truncated. Boo. Hoo.

Black's Wisdom: Sometimes the Facts Are Just Too Much to Overcome

There is one aspect of the show that is undeniably real, and that is Roy Black's "winning isn't everything" philosophy. "In the law, it's not always the best lawyer that wins the case," notes Black.

Unlike lawyers who tout their win-loss records -- preserving them by only opting to take easy cases -- Black tells it like it is: There are some cases only a legal Harry Potter could win, and others where even a mute mannequin could prevail.

Now that's keeping it real.

Jonna M. Spilbor -- a frequent FindLaw guest columnist -- is an attorney and legal analyst on "Kendall's Court", airing Sundays on Fox News Channel's Weekend Live with Brian Wilson. She is also a frequent guest commentator on Court-TV and other television news networks, where she has covered many of the nation's high-profile criminal trials. In the courtroom, she has handled hundreds of cases as a criminal defense attorney, and also served in the San Diego City Attorney's Office, Criminal Division, and the Office of the United States Attorney in the Drug Task Force and Appellate units. In 1998, she earned certification as a Court Appointed Special Advocate with the San Diego Juvenile Court. She is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review.

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