'Much Law but Little Justice': Art Imitates Life in 'The Practice.'
McCloud, Barry, The World and I
On the popular ABC series The Practice, an attractive district attorney and a Sam Spade--like defense lawyer take courtroom talk to the bedroom, with conflicting results.
I think that my first experience with the American criminal-law system occurred during the trial of O.J. Simpson, Until then, as a transplanted Brit I had been exposed to the concept of the law and equitable justice going hand in hand, and the motet that the spirit of the law was all-important. The only manipulation of the law to which I had been privy was at the hands of' that "Old Bailey hack" Rumpole, the creation of author-barrister John Mortimer.
Now for the first time, was the law, in all its televised glory, being used in an almost obscene way? For it was not just the defense attorneys but also the prosecution who were claiming that this or that was or was not admissible, or this or that gave reasonable doubt. Juries were being asked to carry out justice based on half the facts. It was William Henry Seward who stated in a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1850, "There is a higher law than the Constitution." That law seems to be to get your client off at any price.
My impression was not improved by the shenanigans on the TV series Law & Order. Therefore imagine, if you will, my initial reaction to being invited to write for the new ABC television series The Practice. How could I be objective? How could I put aside my views on the real situation of criminal law? However, I was determined not to let my prejudices get in the way of objectivity I therefore spoke with some attorney friends of mine to get insight hate what made them tick, and I think that now I can view the system with at least more knowledge, if not more sympathy.
The Practice is the latest series to come from the pen of David Kelley, the creator of Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, and the much-vaunted Ally McBeal. Set in Boston, it tells the story of a struggling law practice under the aegis of Bobby Donnell, working with the kind of clients who would, if sick, end up at St. Elsewhere. It also has as a sub (but integral) part of the plot a relationship between Donnell and District Attorney Helen Gamble that hearkens back to the Adam's Rib situation of Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn, but without any of the waspish humor that made such a situation workable. Their relationship is at all times vulnerable because, despite their good motives, their work intrudes into the bedroom.
The would-be passion of the members of the practice are continually under fire from Donnell's desire to be recognized as the next Johnny Cochran and the fact that their clients don't always pay their bills. Donnell and his cronies are more akin to Mike Hammer and Sam Spade in image. Their office is not the 26th Floor uptown; it is a shabby suite of offices in which half-empty coffee cups and ketchup-stained burger wrappers vie with briefs for space. An attorney friend of mine confessed that his desk was always a mess and that, in fact, there were more offices like that than those portrayed in L.A. Law.
It is this ambition and the cash-flow situation that lead the members of the practice to being on the one hand more vulnerable and on the other to having less integrity. In one episode, Donnell is asked by office manager Rebecca Washington whether he ever thinks about what they actually do, and he replies very firmly in the negative. I asked a lawyer buddy of mine the same question, and he concurred. As a defense attorney he has to believe his client is innocent and that his only "job" is to get that client off the hook--by whatever legal means. Therefore, Kelley has his characters imitating life.
English poet George Herbert once stated: "Lawyers' houses are built on the heads of fools." In The Practice, the lawyers are sometimes fools. Their judgment calls are often built on instinct and enthusiasm rather than sound legal knowledge. When things go their way, it is often through luck rather than judgment. …