Magazine article National Forum

Appearance V. Reality: "L.A. Law." (the Litigious Society)

Magazine article National Forum

Appearance V. Reality: "L.A. Law." (the Litigious Society)

Article excerpt

Public fascination with the law and the legal profession has generated a number of television programs about lawyers. "L.A. Law," the preeminent example of these shows currently on our viewing schedules, has captured the imagination of the viewing public for the past five years in a way no previous law-oriented series has. The cachet of "L.A. Law" is related not only to the fact that the show reflects and informs the viewer about society's ideals, attitudes, and values regarding the legal system, but also to its addressing the personal aspect of the law by revealing lawyers and their clients as real people. Every episode of "L.A. Law" tries the same underlying case: Appearance v. Reality. The show must balance the competing tensions between what the law and legal process appear to be and what they are in reality without sacrificing the dramatic appeal of the content or, heaven forbid, ratings. If either the appearance of a working, accessible legal system or the reality of an overburdened, ponderous system dominates to the detriment of the other, the delicate balance collapses.

Although "L.A. Law" and its main focus, the McKenzie-Brackman firm, are by most accounts relatively fair television portrayals of life inside a law firm, the show cannot be taken as a mirror of the actual state of the legal profession. The show's major purposes are entertainment, excitement, and high ratings; it does not propose to examine the legal profession in any scientific or objective fashion. The program must necessarily exagerate (ludicrously exaggerate, in some instances) for dramatic effect. Although the cases or issues presented in the show are rooted in reality, by the time they have been condensed for the fifty-two-minute format - with the dramatic aspects intensified - they are no longer real. Nevertheless, the show has struck a responsive chord with the general public as well as with members of the legal profession. My weekly schedule includes very little television; yet I try to include "L.A. Law" every week during the regular season, and issues and events from the show regularly come up in my conversations with other practicing lawyers.

The fascination with portrayals of the legal system cuts across the legal profession: even Justice Marshall has an unabashed and unashamed fondness for "The People's Court." That this fascination extends beyond the legal profession is evidenced by the recent opening of a cable-television network totally devoted to telecasting actual court trials and procedures. Because of the widespread interest, critical acclaim, and strong ratings the show has generated, the effect of "L.A. Law" on the public's perceptions of the legal system - a system originally conceived to protect and preserve the values of a democratically organized society - is definitely worth comment. Furthermore, the show does enlighten and inform the viewer by reflecting on (1) the changing nature of the legal profession; (2) specific aspects of the profession, such as what it means to "think like a lawyer," the role of the judge, access to the profession, how lawyers and the adversarial system approximate justice, and the abstract and concrete notions of the practice of law; and (3) the law as it mirrors cultural values and changes.

The popularity of "L.A. Law" might well be explained as a reflection of society's fascination with the legal profession - a fascination that stems in part from the mysteries associated with what a lawyer does in the special language spoken by attorneys and in part from an awareness that the legal profession is central to the American way of life. In a perfect world the proper role of the lawyer would be to stabilize the social disequilibrium of the forces and counterforces in a dynamic society. Every lawyer should represent the "best" of the American way of life. However, the portrayal of lawyers on "L.A. Law" is tantamount to an admission that this sentimental vision of lawyers as vigilant defenders of democracy may have given way to the reality of lawyers as economic units of production. …

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