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Perhaps I was just an impressionable 13-year-old, but I have spoken to other lawyers who feel the same as I do: Gregory Peck’s portrayal of country lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the reason why we became lawyers in the first place. I can even pin it down to a particular scene: It’s the Deep South during the Depression and Finch has been appointed to represent a black man unjustly accused of raping a white woman. Despite a rigorous cross-examination that exposes the small town’s bigotry and a closing argument that appeals to our humanity, Robinson tragically is found guilty. After the verdict, Finch slowly packs his briefcase, feeling as much the town pariah as his client does. The courtroom clears except for the segregated gallery of blacks who sit in the balcony. Although Finch has forbidden his children, Jem and Jean Louise, from attending the trial, they have snuck into the gallery anyway, sitting next to a black minister. As Finch begins to leave, the entire entourage, except for Jean Louise, rises. Noticing she has remained seated, the minister nudges the young girl and whispers, “Stand up, Jean Louise. Your father’s passin.’” Whatever that feeling was — respect, honor, admiration — I wanted it for myself. Certainly there were other influences that drew me to the law, but for me at 13, Finch represented truth and justice and reason, and I wanted to be just like him. Fast-forward to 2004 and the beginning of the new fall television season, which boasts two new legal dramas, ABC’s “Boston Legal” (lawyers as effete scumbags) and UPN’s “Kevin Hill” (lawyers as redeemable human beings). Mercifully, Fox Network killed its new legal reality show, “The Partner,” which would have pitted street-smart young attorneys against book-smart young attorneys in mock trials, with the last lawyer standing gaining a coveted position in a major law firm. Instead, “The Partner” got bumped by another “Apprentice”-type reality show, “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss.” I guess Fox programmers know quality when they see it. Of the two new legal dramas, “Boston Legal” has the best chance of finding an audience. It is preceded by the hottest new show on television, “Desperate Housewives,” which has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with housewives — oversexed and under — whose growing desperation should send some of them to divorce lawyers in future episodes. “Boston Legal” depicts the zany antics of the high-powered and even higher-priced civil law firm of Crane, Poole & Schmidt. Created and produced by David E. Kelley, the father of “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” falls somewhere on the reality scale between the opiate-like surrealism of “Ally McBeal” and the gut-grabbing ethical dialectic posed by “The Practice.” “Boston Legal” operates in a vainglorious world where unethical lawyers receive Botox treatments at work, “inside sources” inform legal strategy, and lesser opponents can be bribed with “a bottle of scotch and some money to buy some bus bench ads.” Funny stuff, yes; highly entertaining, you bet. But despite the clever plot twists and witty banter, “Boston Legal” represents a new low in pop culture’s portrayal of the legal profession. From “Perry Mason” to “L.A. Law” to “Law and Order,” “lawyers on TV have historically been treated in a fairly positive manner,” says Professor of Law Emeritus Michael Asimow, who teaches at UCLA School of Law and has written extensively about the law and pop culture. “But in ‘Boston Legal,’ the main characters (played by James Spader and William Shatner) are really disgusting people, and the entire legal system is held up to ridicule. The show may represent an important change to the negative.” ***** Shatner, who plays the firm’s founding partner, Denny Crane, has finally found a role well suited to his cardboard acting skills (see “Star Trek” and its progeny). Not only is he ethically challenged (and yes, funny) but he also is slightly mentally askew. Apparently his reputation as a litigator once was so intimidating, the mere mention of his name struck fear in the hearts of his adversaries. So now he walks around the office reciting “Denny Crane,” as if its residual effect is enough to influence the outcome of whatever legal problem the firm might encounter: Getting a client’s mall developed despite endangering a species of salmon, filing a discrimination suit against the producers of the musical “Annie” on behalf of a black girl who didn’t get the starring role, intimidating a witness to drop a shoplifting charge against the CEO of the firm’s biggest client. But the more pernicious of the two is Alan Shore, played by Spader with a delicious smarminess and a flagrant ends-justifies-the-means immorality. Even his winning advice to his young protege Sally Heep (played by Lake Bell) regarding the trial of her first case (“Pull a rabbit out from under your dress,” he tells her) has a sardonic quality that oozes contempt for lawyering. When Heep begs him for help, he closes the door to his office, takes her hand, draws her close and says, “Trust me?” “I do,” she says. “And because you trust me, you will believe what I am about to tell you,” he says. “I will,” she says. “That’s all it is,” he assures her. She looks confused, “All what is?” “Getting the jury to trust you, so they will believe what you tell them.” “Really?” “Once you learn to fake that, there will be no stopping you.” Certainly there is a degree of showmanship that comes with the territory of being a trial lawyer, but what about the facts, the law, the truth? Crane and Shore aren’t totally soulless, but bouts of heart and self-doubt are easily dismissed as sentimental drivel or washed away with lots of liquor. I am not asking for Atticus Finch-like godliness from fictional characters — I know a lot of attorneys who are anything but saints. But if “Boston Legal” represents a sea change in the public’s acceptance of the image of lawyers as intractably negative, isn’t this cause for concern? It’s not as though the legal profession is adored: Lawyer-bashing has been in vogue for some time now. Television aside, Asimow says that movies have been demonizing lawyers since the ’70s. From “The Godfather” (lawyer as Mafia consigliere) to “Carnal Knowledge” (lawyer as misogynist) to “Body Heat” (lawyer as duped murder accomplice), attorneys have been repeatedly cast as lying scoundrels (Jim Carrey as a compulsive “Liar, Liar”) with little to redeem them. I can recall the first lawyer joke I ever heard in a movie, “War of the Roses,” a 1989 black comedy about the destructiveness of divorce. Danny DeVito plays a pricey, omniscient divorce attorney (“My fee is $450 an hour”) who narrates the cautionary tale of Barbara (Kathleen Turner) and Oliver Rose (Michael Douglas) to a prospective client. “What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?” he asks the client. “A good start . . . I used to resent jokes like that. Now I see them as simple truths.” The simple truth is that lawyer jokes and negative film portrayals are just symptoms of the precipitous drop in the public’s perception of the legal profession over the past 25 years, Asimow maintains. “Polls show that lawyers are among the most hated and despised of the professions.” ******** How could lawyer prestige be anything but in deep decline? To gain political advantage, President George W. Bush (with an able assist from big business) uses his bully pulpit to blame lawyers for a host of social ills — from a failed civil judicial system to a failed health-care system to a failed government regulatory system. And lawyers are not without blame: We file frivolous suits, charge outrageous fees, lack civility in the pursuit of all-out victory and engage in crass TV advertising. Whether in fact or fiction, these negative attitudes mirror and shape pop culture, Asimow says. “If lawyers are hated, you are going to get a lot of movies about hateful lawyers,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would even make a movie about an Atticus Finch anymore. That character wouldn’t resonate with what the public thinks about lawyers.” Asimow admits that he hasn’t watched “Kevin Hill,” UPN’s legal drama about a lawyer (Kevin Hill) who is played with strength and charm by Taye Diggs. The premise of the show has Hill, a high-rolling New York entertainment lawyer with an active single life, suddenly “inheriting” the custody of his deceased cousin’s baby girl. Torn between family and career, he leaves his prestigious practice and accepts a job with a boutique (all-female) litigation firm. Whereas “Boston Legal” makes us laugh at the actions of soulless attorneys, “Kevin Hill” has as much soul as he does style (well matched shirts, ties and friends). Not only does Hill do the legal thing, but he also does the right thing. A bit cocky in the courtroom, he utters laudable phrases such as “truth is the best defense” and recognizes conflicts of interest without the necessity of first being grieved. What transpires inside the courtroom serves as a sometimes too obvious life lesson, which Hill then uses to help model his newly formed family. The result is the portrayal of a compelling character, who is challenged by the law and life to grow into a better human being. Although “Kevin Hill” is remarkably engaging (due largely to the likeability of Diggs), the show was rated 89th out of 103 primetime programs for the week of Nov. 8. Nonetheless, UPN is committed to “Kevin Hill” and has ordered a full season’s worth of episodes, which is some indication that there may be room for ethical attorneys on TV. But what if Alan Shore wins out over Kevin Hill and becomes the dominant archetype of the lawyer in pop culture? Will jurors dismiss a lawyer’s protestation of a client’s innocence because that juror believes lawyers only fake sincerity? Will impressionable 13-year-olds want to become attorneys when the only truth they learn from TV is that all lawyers lie and justice depends on who you know? Only time and Nielsen ratings will tell. Senior Reporter Mark Donald wrote this piece for Texas Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in Dallas.

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