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Reality Series? It's the 'Law'!

July 28, 2005 By:
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Roy Black
Twelve angry men?

No - okay, maybe a little combative. But the men - and women - who form "The Law Firm" are firmly on the right side of the Nielsens.

This latest reality series - in which 12 attorneys (this is no dozen dirty of the defense world, but clean-cut Clarence Darrows as wannabe reality ratings darlings) scope out trials and tribulations - begins Thursday, July 28, at 9 p.m., on NBC-TV.

What - no Philadelphia lawyers? And how about the Jewish presence? Well, when it comes to Jewish-prudence, there is at least one star of David - Barrett Rubens - amid the stellar crew.

But if there's no local lawyer, "The Law Firm" has its fill of topnotch attorneys from around the country, all guilty of, if anything, wanting to show that J.D. doesn't stand for Justice Deferred.

Objection! Even such a criticism is unfair to the many brilliant minds who make the system work, lawyers will say. And, just looking at the protean talents of the pros working on this "Law Firm," the argument, under cross-examination, bears fruit. After all … producer David E. Kelley? Roy Black, cast as the firm's "managing partner"? A prima facies case of excellence on call.

So, objection sustained - and prolific producer Kelley and prominent trial attorney/legal analyst Black have sustained careers as legal eagles for decades, lending their expertise to this reality show in which truth, justice and the American way get buffeted about a bit at times.

But isn't that the American way? When jurisprudence is sometimes more prurient than just, and truth belies false claims and counterclaims on the docket.

Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help you get a gig? But more than anything, after eight episodes, "The Law Firm" will boil down to this: Who will be the last counselor standing?

Tough verdict; all taking part are seasoned attorneys - with some providing more spice than others.

But is this the venue for a profession in which lives are literally at stake? Who's to judge?

Kelley, one of TV's most respected producers ("L.A. Law," "Ally McBeal," "The Practice," "Boston Legal"), has come down hard with his gavel on the genre of reality shows in the past. Why file as a friend of the court now?

"My biggest concern was that [the genre] was taking over the landscape of prime-time television, and most of it was God-awful," says Kelley. Most showed disrespect for what TV has to offer.

So why would this respected producer reverse himself with "The Law Firm"?

"This is a smart show; it gives contestants the chance to excel; it's not a forum to exploit or ridicule lawyers," notes the producer and former lawyer himself. "Once the competition begins, it's about who is the best lawyer."

Attorneys at work besting each other may be the best part of the show. But the 12 counselors cashed out early on their eagerness to win the cash prize, says Kelley: "Their ego was exalted way over the cash prize. It became more about winning for showcasing their skills."

Talking about skilled … Black is the white knight to many, litigator as leading light in a profession shadowed by misunderstandings and apprehensions. With more than 35 years of experience - and a caseload history loaded with such clients as William Kennedy Smith; artist Peter Max; and broadcaster Rush Limbaugh - Black, also a legal analyst for NBC, examines why "The Law Firm" forms fascinating TV.

"There's no risk," says the attorney, "of a boring lawyer winning the competition; boring lawyers quickly lose out."

But none of these lawyers are at a loss for words: "Lawyers are communicators; we want to be able to tell our story."

But is a story telescoped through TV the best way to communicate? For that, "TV Turn-Ons" turns to Louis Fryman, chairman emeritus of Fox Rothschild, the international law firm headquartered in Philadelphia, for some briefing.

The prominent attorney, who has also taught trial advocacy, is not an advocate of any series such as "The Law Firm" if it places its spotlight on the wrong subjects and "creates some distortion," says Fryman, who had not seen "The Law Firm" prior to broadcast but was advised of its premise.

What he cautions that can get lost amid the glitz and glamour of TV lights is one major illuminating reality: "Lawyers don't make the facts; lawyers can only deal with evidence."

And any show that showcases showboating lawyers can be detrimental to the image. "You have to be cautious - are they distorting what actually happened?"

Happens that Fryman doesn't believe all such shows are the TV equivalent of an enemy of the people. "Reality TV can be effective" in disseminating information, he says. "Just look at some of the medical shows."

And if this "Law Firm" offers a behind-the-bench look at the efforts and literal trials and tribulations it takes to be a lawyer, well, note bene: that's all to the good, claims Fryman.

And "The Law Firm" is generally good at doing just that, detailing the lawyers' determination to abet, not assault, the law, although there is one case early on in which one client is crossed up when his lawyer fails to cross the "t" in truth.

It's an issue to be taken seriously, even if lawyer jokes provide some great black humor - right, Roy Black?

"Lawyers are always the butt of jokes," he says good-humoredly. "It started out with Shakespeare saying, 'Let's kill all the lawyers.' "

Obviously, he notes wryly, some survived.

Case closed? No. Just the beginning.

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