Kelley does it again with 'Law Firm'

The reality show has real lawyers arguing real cases for recognition and a prize.
HOLLYWOOD -- David E. Kelley has lent his rust-proof imprimatur to "The Law Firm," a "People's Court"-meets-"The Apprentice" reality series that debuts Thursday night on NBC. That the creator of "Picket Fences," "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" has gone into business with the producers of "Surreal Life" and "Blind Date" -- who approached him with the idea of a competition featuring real lawyers arguing real cases in front of real (retired) judges and juries, with weekly eliminations leading to the time-honored cash prize -- does seem like news of sort, a suggestion of exhaustion or opportunism on the sometime Golden Boy. However, Kelley has done worse by television ("Snoops," "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.") and lived.
The setting
The series begins, as all such series do, with the arrival of the players onto the playing field -- in this case, a suite of offices in downtown Los Angeles -- to meet a father figure. Hotshot Miami lawyer Roy Black, who already does legal analysis for the various NBC networks and has counted William Kennedy Smith, Marv Albert and Kelsey Grammer among his clients, plays the "managing partner" of this nameless "law firm." We are told that he is a "legal legend" -- he's "the biggest reason I became a lawyer," says one contestant -- and that the gathered attorneys are not only vying for cash but for his approval: "recognition by me as the finest young trial lawyer at the law firm."
Expensively put together and clearly in charge of the room, Black does cut a composed and imposing figure. And though he represents rectitude and commitment here, the business of his own practice, "ranging from murder to drug smuggling, securities fraud, money laundering, Internet sex crimes, mail fraud and tax evasion" (as his own Web site reports) suggests rather the sort of lawyer television drama invariably paints in a negative light, a rich person's mouthpiece, steeped in white-collar crime and celebrity misbehavior. "I represent people who want whatever can be done to be done," Black told Miami magazine several years ago. "There are only a few lawyers who are willing to go as far as I do, strategically. ... I don't take prisoners when I go to trial."
The quirks of justice
However, the rich and powerful deserve a vigorous defense -- even the guilty do. That is the strange but necessary fact of our criminal justice system, a fact with which Kelley loves to play on his fictional law shows. The participants in "The Law Firm" must be prepared to argue either side of a case -- they are randomly assigned to prosecute or defend -- and we see that to do the job well requires a willful suspension of disbelief, a kind of deep allegiance to whatever compelling narrative best makes the client's case. In one instance, it becomes clear that a client has invented an assault charge against her ex; this depresses but does not derail her lawyers.
On "The Practice" or "Ally McBeal" such derailment of justice might be the occasion for reflection, depression or comedy. In this series, however, the emphasis is mainly on winning. (Although merely being on a winning team does not protect a contestant from elimination.) The relative merits of truth and justice are little reflected upon. "Despicable and brilliant," is how one lawyer describes an opponent's inflammatory closing argument, admitting that he would have done it himself.
The reality allure
There is an undeniable baseline fascination in watching the contest, and as these game shows go, "The Law Firm" takes its subject more seriously than most -- though no more so than, say, "Project Runway" or "Situation: Comedy." And that how these lawyers perform has real consequences for their clients -- the decisions are legally binding -- does add a certain spice to the proceedings, if less than the show intimates. These are civil, not criminal, cases -- chosen to highlight a range of issues and illustrate particular challenges of the job -- and no one is going to jail when they're over.
Oddly, the show's real-life lawyers do not come across as fully dimensional as Kelley's invented ones. Certainly they are less fun. By restricting the business of the show so strictly to the casework and the courtroom, the deeper souls that might inhabit these type-A juggernauts remain unglimpsed; they are all work and no play, and many display an alarming and tiresome capacity for childish pique, finger-pointing and complaint, undoubtedly exacerbated by being in a contest -- and in a TV show edited for excitement. (The big egos are not unexpected.) And they have clearly been cast for their looks -- there is not one shaped like Camryn Manheim or Michael Badalucco -- which is not to say that they aren't good at what they do, just that they also happen to be good-looking. "Is that a crime?" Kelley -- the good-looking husband of good-looking Michelle Pfeiffer -- might reasonably ask. ("Only against reality," I might answer.)

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