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You’re sitting at home, still in your work clothes. You won’t admit that you rushed through those last few documents to get here in time, but you did. Because it’s Wednesday night. And you don’t like to miss “Law & Order.” Sure, you could tape it, or watch the reruns, but it’s just not the same. So, with a day’s wrangling over discovery requests and registration rights behind you, you relax with televised wrangling over abortion, disbarment and murder one. What makes today’s plethora of law shows — hits like “The Practice,” “Family Law” or “Law & Order” — so successfully almost-realistic that you can’t help but rush home in time to catch them? Where do they get this stuff? “My inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. The reality is that there is plenty of drama inherent in the way the legal system operates,” says Lucas Reiter, one of the chief writers on ABC’s “The Practice.” Like many of the leading writers on such shows as “Family Law,” “Law & Order,” and even “Ally McBeal,” Reiter is an attorney himself. He started out in the Queens County, N.Y., District Attorney’s Office — in the homicide investigations bureau, no less. But, he says, his heart was always in writing, and when opportunity knocked, he left to start a newsmagazine for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s TechTV cable network. Reiter says he then began writing in the TV drama format, sent his work around, and “things just worked out.” Barry Schindel, who writes and produces the original “Law & Order” series, has a similar story. He worked for 10 years as a prosecutor in New York, but through what he calls a “happy coincidence of luck and talent,” his writing was noticed by the “Law & Order” team, and he eventually moved out to Los Angeles and up to his current position as executive producer and head writer. Being lawyers themselves, both Reiter and Schindel say they take pains to make their stories as true to life and the law as the medium allows. “We try as best we can not to disappoint lawyers,” says Schindel. “I don’t want to be embarrassed.” Both writers are more current with Lexis and Westlaw than many practicing lawyers. A recent episode of “Law & Order” cited a due process case decided only months earlier by the Supreme Court. Another episode, about a parent of a hockey player who killed a coach, eerily prefigured the notorious “Hockey Dad” case that made headlines this past winter. “Some shows are ‘ripped from the headlines,’” says Schindel. “That one they ripped from us.” Reiter says that many of his story lines for “The Practice” are drawn from actual cases. “It’s not unusual for me to get a phone call from a law professor or a friend of mine from the DA’s office recognizing a bit of themselves in one of our stories.” Other tricks of the legal trade have also enriched the shows’ content. Schindel says he frequently draws on his experience as a prosecutor, not only for substantive ideas, but also for how cases proceed. “We’re more procedural than most law shows. No one ever stands up and shouts ‘I did it! I did it!’” Of course, both Reiter and Schindel recognize that they are writing drama, not legal briefs. “The legal scenes are written to service a dramatic story,” says Reiter. “Of course, there are things that happen on our show that aren’t realistic in a day-to-day setting — outbursts, sarcastic comments from judges … but we try to look at what people’s motivations are, and be honest and credible.” Schindel says “Law & Order” doesn’t see itself as playing an educational role. But, having practiced law for 10 years, “I’m pretty sensitive to trade craft adherence,” he says. “By and large, the arguments you see are pretty accurate legal arguments.” And when those two goals — realism and entertainment — conflict? “If the law is such that a situation could never possibly happen the way we wrote it, there’s probably something fundamentally wrong with how we wrote it,” says Reiter. Schindel agrees. “I don’t think there are many people with the show who don’t want to be faithful to a certain standard. There are always different kinds of arguments about, say, which witness could go first to tee up something else, but we can’t do that because the defense doesn’t go first. Or, Sam [Waterson, star of "Law & Order"] would not cross-examine this witness, because it’s his witness.” Where rules are bent most often, Schindel says, it’s “not so much for entertainment purposes as for time constraints — for example, a 30-second closing argument in a death penalty show — not much of what we show would be objectionable, but obviously in real life, it would take three to four hours.” Adds Schindel: “Anyway, you’d fall asleep if I showed you how [the legal system] really is.” So what about the question you’re dying to ask: How can I write a successful TV show? “The best advice I could give anybody is write,” says Reiter. “Sit down and figure out a story that you feel is worth telling, and figure out how to tell it in a compelling way and within the format. If you want to write for TV, get some TV scripts. See how it’s done generally, and you’ll get a feel for, say, the four-act structure of a one-hour drama. Once you’ve got material that speaks well for you, send it out.” Reiter adds that the relatively tight knit legal community can itself be a tremendous asset. “If you really want to give it a shot, you have a chance at things going well for you.” Schindel is a bit more pessimistic. “Television is a very difficult business to break into. … Treat it the same way you would treat a legal career — approach television with the same diligence you applied to Skadden, Cravath, or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” But, he adds, lawyers can handle it. “Anyone who went through law school or passed the bar — they shouldn’t be intimidated by television.” Jay Michaelson, a writer and teacher who lives in Manhattan, is the editor of Zeek Magazine ( www.zeek.net), an online journal of thought and culture.

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