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David E. Kelley, the Hollywood wunderkind and former attorney, has teamed with nationally renowned trial lawyer Roy Black in the latest attempt to show American television watchers what litigation looks like. Publicists at NBC call the unscripted program — “The Firm,” set to debut on July 28 — a “new alternative drama” series. Kelley is more straightforward in labeling it as reality TV. The set-up: a dozen real-life young lawyers from around the country argue real cases in front of real judges, with the one attorney eventually deemed most persuasive by Black and winning a $250,000 jackpot. As the Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of scripted shows such as “L.A. Law” and “The Practice,” Kelley acknowledged personal trepidation in entering what for him is a new genre. Most reality shows, said Kelley in an interview, are “god awful.” He added, “Most of the fare I felt disrespected the medium and, more importantly, degraded its contestants. This series won’t do either. It’s a smart show. It’s not a forum to exploit or ridicule the lawyers.” But New York attorneys called for reaction to Kelley’s concept were unanimously unpleased. “It strikes me as boring, frivolous, pointless and potentially unethical,” said Ronald L. Kuby of Kuby & Perez. As co-host of the early-morning WABC talk radio program “Curtis and Kuby,” he added, “But far be it from me to criticize somebody else’s media whoring.” Kathleen Turley, counsel for Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, said the new law show is “unseemly” and a “money-grubbing scheme” that will “contribute to the ever-increasing blurring of reality and entertainment.” A third generation lawyer, Turley added, “I feel my father and grandfather spinning in their graves.” “I suppose there is some interest and drama in watching excellent lawyers prepare for trial and engage at trial,” said professor Victor Goode, who teaches legal ethics, among other subjects, at City University of New York School of Law. “But the idea of making this a contest where the best hotshot lawyer wins a prize seems to distort the whole purpose of representation — to zealously advocate on behalf of clients, including the tactical and strategic choices in that regard.” Most of Kelley’s “contestants” are California-based attorneys, as are all five retired jurists selected to hear civil cases. The opposing parties have agreed to consider their decisions as binding. According to NBC executives, the cases will be a mix of bench and jury trials “ranging from First Amendment issues to neighbor disputes to wrongful death.” “This is the only reality show that has real in it,” insisted David Garfinkle, among the executive producers of “The Firm,” whose TV ouevre includes the reality programs “Blind Date” and “Surreal Life.” Black, who serves the reality show as a fictional managing partner of a law firm, gained prominence in 1991 during a successful defense of William Kennedy Smith, tried for rape in West Palm Beach, Fla. He gained later notice in 1997 by representing New York TV sportscaster Marv Albert, accused of biting a woman’s back during a sex romp in a Virginia hotel. Black said “The Firm” would dramatize not simply courtroom arguments, but “what the lawyers have to do” in getting to trial. “Lawyers are given the opportunity to really show how good they are, how hard they work,” said Black. Before all eight episodes were completed, he said of two attorney/contestants, “I tried to hire them. Unfortunately, the producers refused to allow me to do it until the show is aired.” As for the young lawyers themselves, whose practice experience runs from two to 12 years, NBC publicists provided the Law Journal with personality indicators in the form of written question-answer interviews. In accordance with network policy, the lawyer/contestants were identified by first-name only. A sampling of interview excerpts: Q: Why do you think you are a better lawyer than the other associates? A: “Most lawyers end up in law school still with a silver spoon in their mouths. I didn’t. I had to fight for it,” said Mike. “I dropped out of high school when I was 16, and only made it back on the academic track when I was 23.” A: “Sass and ass,” said Anika. “I am feisty, quick-thinking, articulate, and have that in-your-face savvy … The ‘ass’ — well, it’s not what you think!” Q: What, in your opinion, is the biggest misconception people have about lawyers? A: “[T]hat the ‘good’ ones are heartless and dishonest,” said Aileen. “In fact, the best trial lawyers are compassionate, ethical and personable … [T]o be a good trial lawyer, be yourself — unless you’re a jerk.” A: “[W]hat a lawyer looks like,” said Barrett. “I’m often assumed to be the court reporter or someone who couldn’t possibly be that smart.” A: “[T]hat they are lazy and don’t care about their clients,” said Deep. “Unfortunately, for the most part it’s true. Which is why I’ve dedicated myself to challenging these stereotypes in the courtroom, which you can see for yourself when you see me in action on the show.” A: “Lawyers are not lying scum,” said Kelly. With reference to “Ally McBeal,” another David E. Kelley TV creation, she added, “A lawyer’s life is far from glamorous. There are no unisex bathrooms … no heart-wrenching screaming matches with the sexy opposing counsel whose clothes later end up on the marble floor of your penthouse office suite.” Q: What’s your verdict on reality TV? A: “I’m not particularly interested in watching people eat bugs, search for a boyfriend or explore their inner child on national television,” said Aileen. A: “Reality shows … turn average Joes into quasi-celebrities who will do anything to ride out their 15 minutes of fame,” said Deep. “I hope to be able to count myself among such an esteemed group of individuals.” A: “Guilty,” said Barrett, “but insane.” In view of the foregoing sentiment, Black was asked why he would wish to be involved in unscripted reality, even with as celebrated a writer-producer as Kelley. “What lawyer in the U.S. would not want to work with David Kelley?” said Black, who uses excerpts from some of Kelley’s scripted shows as class materials for courses he teaches at his alma mater, the University of Miami School of Law. “Lawyers are communicators, just like screenwriters. We want to be able to tell our story.” Trial lawyers, he added, must be dramatic, “or the jury will click you off just like a bad TV show.” Kuby remained unconvinced on this point. “This contrived Judge-Judy-meets-Fear-Factor strikes me as a floor below which I did not think even the legal profession could sink,” he said. Nor was Goode persuaded. “What’s next for reality TV?” he asked rhetorically. “Which doctor can take out a gall bladder the best?”

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