Friday, July 29, 2005

You're Lawyer Show Is In My Reality Program

Remember those commercials for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups? You know the one where a couple of guys are walking along, bump into each other and one guy's chocolate bar ends up in the other guy's peanut butter: "You're Peanut Butter's in my Chocolate." "You're Chocolate is in my Peanut Butter." Well David E. Kelly decided to put a Lawyer Show into a Reality Show, and the result is probably just as good as a Peanut Butter Cup. And he called it The Law Firm.

Initially at least The Law Firm seems like yet another clone of The Apprentice, a show which has been copied so much this summer that it's hard to find a night without a wannabe Trump. In this show "Trump" is noted trial attorney Roy Black. Vying for his attention are a dozen young attorneys from various areas of the law. There are public defenders, various types of civil litigators, a labour lawyer, and at least one prosecutor. The winning "associate" will receive a prize of $250,000.

As in The Apprentice the lawyers are split into teams. Here is where we start to separate from The Apprentice. Instead of two teams, there are - initially at least - four teams of three lawyers. The teams have to face each other in real court cases, drawn from the Arbitration rolls - Arbitration being a process where both parties agree to have their case heard by an Arbitrator instead of in a court of law. The Arbitrator is usually (but not always) a retired judge whose decision is binding on both parties and cannot be appealed. Arbitration cases - performed without lawyers - are the mainstay of those earliest of reality shows, the "court shows" (The People's Court, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Judy and the like). This means that there are real consequences for the people involved in these cases, not just for the attorneys. The two cases in the first episode aren't "big" cases to anyone except the litigants. In one case a woman is suing her neighbour for the cost of her veterinarian bills after her three-legged dog was mauled by the neighbours two bull mastiffs, while in the other a woman is suing the local county coroner for damages after he used the police lights that his car is equipped with to pull her over for dangerous driving despite the fact that he is not in fact a police officer. The more interesting of the cases is the one with the dogs simply because of the defendant who is, to say the least, more than a bit eccentric. When his legal team arrives to see the location of the attack he shows them the dogs and says that "a blindfolded monkey can tell you this is two non-aggressive dogs" although the lawyers don't seem convinced.

During the show we see the competitive nature of lawyers as the attorneys prep their cases. There are conflicting approaches and although they are supposed to be working as teams they are also quick to criticize each other, both before each other and in confessional style interviews. The drama escalates when the cases go before the arbitrators. The differing abilities of the lawyers come to the fore. One woman does a very poor job of presenting her sides opening arguments and this is worsened by the Judge being somewhat hostile towards her. Strength and weaknesses do come out as the cases are tried and each lawyer gets his or her turn presenting the case. Obviously we don't see the entirety of both cases simply because there isn't time in the show, but we do see the lawyers working and often making mistakes. In the show seen on Thursday night the cases were won, often in spite of the lawyers. The woman whose dog was mauled won even though her attorneys didn't handle the cross examination of the man who owned the mastiffs very well and tried to get a statement of his which was prejudicial to his own case ("if that dog had all of his legs cut off he'd be a menace to society") stricken from the record. In the end it came down to the fact that he said he would pay for the veterinary bills, a point which both sides appeared to ignore (the Arbitrator did take the woman to task because she knew that the man had large dogs who were out at the time thanks to actions that he took). In the other case, it was clear that the Coroner was acting outside his area of competence and was even breaking the law himself in order to pull the woman over for dangerous driving.

The big difference between this show and The Apprentice comes with the Dismissal phase. Just because you win the case doesn't necessarily mean that you're safe from being evicted from the show; both dismissals from Thursday's show came from the teams that won their cases. What Roy Black is looking for is performance. He took several people to task for not anticipating actions by the other parties, for not taking a leadership role, and in one case not adjusting her approach before the Judge in the case with the coroner when the Judge's hostility became apparent. She was dismissed, as was the lawyer who made the blunder of asking that the prejudicial comment be stricken from the record.

I liked The Law Firm. Even though it is an Apprentice clone it is far more attractive than The Cut or I Want To Be A Hilton. One of the things is the people involved. The lawyers I have known over the years have on the whole been extroverts, and a lot of them have been performers. Indeed the Law School at the university I attended puts on an annual comedy revue called "Legal Follies" where the cast and crew is made up of law students. Lawyers, by their nature, are also competitive. Those two qualities make for good television. Another thing is that bad performance - regardless of whether or not the person is on the winning team - is punished. After all, winning a case in a court of law is often not a result of the arguments but of the merits of the particular situations. It didn't matter that the three legged dog was a "menace to society", the owner fo the dogs that mauled it had stated that he would pay the vet bills and no amount of argument could change that fact. What mattered to Black was the competency of the presentation and in his view a member of the winning team showed less ability than the members of the losing one. If I am going to be inundated with shows that are based on The Apprentice then give me a little something in them that is innovative. That's one reason why I like Hell's Kitchen. Gordon Ramsey might be his show's version of Donald Trump, but he is there with the wanna be chefs on his show every minute, exhorting them to perform, yelling at them and demanding that they do it his way. In short he doesn't just watch the video tapes and depend on his advisor. Even though Roy Black isn't constantly observing his "associates", The Law Firm gives me something similar - real legal cases where the actions of the people on the show have real consequences and where performance is the important thing, not just "winning" your task. For that alone I find it interesting.

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