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There’s never been a better time than now to be a lawyer. Consider the evidence: Since declining by 30 percent from 1991 to 1998, law school applications are on the rise. Meanwhile, every other television show features a lawyer — from “Ally McBeal” to “Judging Amy” to “Law & Order” to this season’s “Hopewell” and “Ed.” Perennial favorites John Grisham and Scott Turow remain on the fiction best-seller list while relative newcomers like Steve Martini, Lisa Scottoline, and Brad Meltzer have made recent debuts, and books with legal conflicts like “Midwives” and “Snow Falling on Cedars” have become huge hits. In the cinema Erin Brockovich’s bosom fills the screen, while John Travolta makes toxic torts sexy in “A Civil Action.” Even The New York Times gets in on the action by running two front-page articles about law firm salaries and pro bono work. Could it be — gasp! — that lawyers are cool again? “I think we’re in a lawyer boom,” says Paul Joseph, co-editor of “Prime Time Law: Fictional Television as Legal Narrative,” and associate dean at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Not since “L.A. Law” in the mid-80′s has it been hip for lawyers to ‘fess up to their occupations at a cocktail party. (OK, it was never hip, but at least it didn’t make people gag.) But since the market crash of 1987, the subsequent layoff of lawyers and the collapse of several big firms, law has seemed a profession of last refuse, a dive for anyone without the sense to make a million on Wall Street. Until now. Why? How did a profession that elevated photocopying to an art form garner the attention of the culture-meisters? Or, to put it differently, what’s wrong with kids these days? “The ‘greed is good’ era gave us a bad reputation,” says Joseph. He attributes the recent resurrection of the profession to two unlikely events: the O.J. Simpson trial and the impeachment proceedings. Both focused the country on the central role that law plays “in the medium of our debate about social issues.” Marlyn Robinson, the reference librarian at the University of Texas law school, whose collection on law and popular culture includes over 575 movies and more than 2,500 books, agrees. The Simpson trial, she says, and the coverage by Court TV, has led to a renewed interest in law. Apparently, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Money helps, as well. After stagnating for most of a decade, big law firm salaries began a slow and inexorable rise starting in about 1994, and then leaping to $145,000 (including bonus) this year. The salaries still don’t compare with investment bankers’, but it’s not poverty. The salary spike, caused by the lure of dot-coms, also explains the renewed lure of the law. Everything associated with the Internet has suddenly become fashionable — even if it wears a pocket protector — and lawyers are no exception. It’s lawyers who have structured the IPOs, the leveraged buyouts, the golden parachutes that have put so many computer nerds in Maseratis and Calvins. Of course, lawyers’ fortunes have risen and fallen over the years (though the paychecks have only gone up). In the early days, we had “Perry Mason” and “The Defenders,” TV shows in which the lawyers were good (except opposing counsel) and everyone else was bad. In the movies we had “Anatomy of a Murder” and “Witness for the Prosecution,” where (again) good lawyers struggled with bad people. And, in print, the ultimate good lawyer narrative: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As John Osborne, the author of “The Paper Chase” (and writer of the TV series), notes, legal narratives used to be about absolutes. “[The Paper Chase] wasn’t about winning — it was about respecting the great truth of contract law,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I doubt that any of today’s TV shows even know what natural law, as opposed to legal positivism, is. But we did! [Professor] Kingsfield’s god-like qualities came because he knew more of the great truth of contract law than any other lawyer. He was a high priest.” According to Robinson, the movie “The Verdict” (1982) changed all that. For the first time, a legal hero was portrayed with all his foibles — alcoholism, ambulance chasing, womanizing. Good was a relative concept, and moral ambiguities abounded. This opened a different era in legal narratives, which led to “L.A. Law” (1986) and the novel, “Presumed Innocent” (1987), where there are no good guys, only good haircuts. Now we have the ultimate in moral ambiguity in David E. Kelley’s “The Practice,” where good people do bad things for the right reasons, and bad people do good things for the wrong reasons, and every variation in between. The shift from absolutes to relativism, says Joseph, represents a shift in society’s perception of authority figures in general. “Society is more skeptical,” he says, “and more willing to look at the dark side.” Lawyers, like doctors, have taken the hit. “The view of the lawyer has become more complicated,” Robinson concurs. Yet it’s difficult to conclude whether popular culture has shaped our view of lawyers, or whether it merely reflects prevailing norms about the legal profession. Causality, to paraphrase Joseph, is a slippery fish. “Television has probably had some effect on [the] perception [of lawyers],” he says, “but television also can’t get too far ahead of the general perception.” In other words, depending on the age, we get the lawyers we deserve. On television, in the 50′s, and early 60′s, when father knew best, we had the moral certainties of “Perry Mason.” In the late 60′s and early 70′s, when idealism reigned, we got “The Young Lawyers” and “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.” In the late 70′s, as we returned to making money, we had John Osborn’s short-lived “The Associates,” about three recent law school graduates who join a Wall Street firm. Then, by the 80′s, we got the now infamous “L.A. Law.” Each show reflected its time, but each also influenced another generation of students in their career paths. It’s not uncommon to meet a 50-something lawyer who claims “The Defenders” made him want to go to law school. On the other hand, today’s students, according to Robinson, have no memory of an earlier era. They’re choosing law school because of the unisex bathrooms and dancing babies. They’re in for a big surprise. What do we have to look forward to? Now that lawyers have seized the public imagination again, perhaps we’re heading for a return to the lawyer as hero. Likeable lawyer-heroes populate “Hopewell” and “Ed” as well as slightly older TV fare such as “Judging Amy” and “Family Law.” Contemporary legal thrillers from Scottoline, Linda Fairstein and others are also filled with do-good lawyers. (Scott Turow, perhaps showing his age, is an exception to this rule). The movies haven’t quite caught up with the new rage for good, but given all the lawyers headed for Hollywood, it’s only a matter of time. The next bad guys? Dot-com entrepreneurs.

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