Kelley tries reality TV, but in a courtly way

New `Law Firm' is `Practice' made real

July 13, 2005|By Maria Elena Fernandez | Maria Elena Fernandez,LOS ANGELES TIMES

For years, David E. Kelley had lived with the fear. The lawyer-turned-writer/producer, known for his evocative fictional legal eagles and his prolific way with words, sensed it was only a matter of time before the booming reality genre he so despised crossed into the television world he had created.

"When reality television was proliferating, I was a great champion of the idea - I so loved it - that I thought, `Oh, my God, what's gonna happen next?'" the creator of Ally McBeal, The Practice and Boston Legal, said facetiously.

"Somebody's gonna come along and do what I'm doing on The Practice for real," he said. "And I thought if somebody did come along and told those little stories, not necessarily the A-murder stories but the little stories that we tell in the practice of law, the stakes are just exponentially bigger when you know those clients aren't actors. It would be far more compelling than anything we could offer. So it really was a fear that I lived with."

The fear turned into reality in more ways than one. Enter David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe, partners at Renegade 83 and the producers of The Surreal Life and Blind Date, who were seeking to make reality television "more real." The duo had conceived a legal-based unscripted series that would pit 12 civil litigators against one another as they tried real-life cases in front of judges and juries whose verdicts were binding. But the producers were missing one element:

"If we could somehow work it out where lawyers were really trying cases on TV, where there are real consequences and real verdicts and real people, we thought that could be an incredible drama," Garfinkle said. "And the guy who created all the dramas in the '90s and in the year 2000 is David Kelley. What better person to partner up with?"

So Renegade and David E. Kelley Productions joined forces to create The Law Firm, which premieres on NBC on July 28. And the first order of business became hiring a managing partner who would run the law firm, evaluate the performance of the lawyers and decide who got to stay and vie for the $250,000 cash prize. Kelley's top pick: prominent trial attorney and legal analyst Roy Black, who has represented high-profile clients such as William Kennedy Smith and Rush Limbaugh.

"I'd always been a fan of his, not just as a lawyer - he's a great lawyer - but I was also very impressed by his television acumen," Kelley said. "I've watched him on the Today show for years, and he has a very finely tuned sense of getting into the center of a conflict and the issue. That's obviously something important in television: someone who can articulate it quickly and hold the interest of the viewers."

Black was intrigued when he first spoke to Kelley, but it wasn't a fast sell. A trial lawyer for 35 years and a professor at the University of Miami law school, Black asked for personal guarantees from Kelley and NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker that The Law Firm would be a sophisticated, legitimate courtroom show that would give viewers an inside look at the work entailed in preparing a trial without embarrassing or humiliating the participants.

"What I was really interested in was showing how the lawyers really are, not the sort of image the public has," Black said. "The public has no idea how much work lawyers do behind the scenes. They don't know it takes 50 hours of preparation for every hour in court. They think we all show up in a nice three-piece suit and start talking in the courtroom, without knowing the kind of work it takes beforehand."

To set up the law firm, producers sorted through 5,000 civil cases in alternative resolution banks across the country, seeking a broad spectrum of topics as well as levels of difficulty. For each case, both parties had to agree to have their case televised and to be bound by the court's findings. The cases were tried in front of retired judges who applied the laws of the states where they originated, following California trial procedures.

The lawyers, selected from 1,000 candidates, were assigned cases such as neighbor disputes, First Amendment issues and wrongful deaths. Winning didn't guarantee staying at the firm, Black decided, because "in the law, it's not always the best lawyer that wins the case. No lawyer should be penalized because the facts of their case were not as strong as their opponents'."

Black's deal included another caveat: As managing partner of the firm, he wanted to be the sole evaluator of the contestants. That is, producers were not allowed to whisper in his ear to keep the most charismatic lawyers in the mix for the sake of good storytelling.

"Roy would have none of that, nor did I want it either," Kelley said. "So it preserved the integrity of the show and also offered the potential of a bust. What would happen if the four best lawyers lived up to everybody's preconceptions of lawyers and that is, you know, boring and verbose? As it turned out, I think we were protected because litigators are the most dynamic trial lawyers, but Roy had a free hand. He wasn't interested in making television stars here. "He wanted at the end of the day to hire lawyers that people at home would hire if they got into a legal jam," Kelley said.

So, has reality television's Public Enemy No. 1 turned the corner on the road that leads toward little grooms and bachelors and bachelorettes?

"No!" Kelley gasped. "But I did think I might do one on a Nielsen family because all I would need is for those families to watch."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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