As former lawyers, writers on same page

Research plays big part in scribes' lives

Most people attend law school to become attorneys. Some, however, use it as a steppingstone to land a writing gig on “The Practice.”

Of the 10 full-time writers, most have law degrees, including Alfonso Moreno and Lynne Litt. Moreno is wrapping his third season, while Litt, a former writer for “Law & Order,” is wrapping up season No. 1.

“It’s very helpful to have a law background,” says Moreno, who attended UCLA as an undergraduate, went on to Stanford for his law degree and then returned to Westwood for a master’s in screenwriting. “Ultimately, it’s good to have because otherwise you might not understand the big picture when telling a story and might try to say too much.”

On the importance of having a full grasp of the law, Litt adds: “We spend a lot of time researching to make sure the law is right. It’s a big responsibility not to send the wrong message to 23 million people every Sunday night.”

During the first two years of the series, creator David E. Kelley was the sole full-time writer, churning out scripts while simultaneously penning “Ally McBeal” — something, eventually, had to give.

Moreno wrote a spec script about lead character Bobby Donnell witnessing a crime and sent it to producer Pam Wisne. Moreno had written for Steven Bochco’s “Murder One” and other series that never lasted beyond a season. In pitching himself, he wasn’t afraid to declare that he thought “The Practice” was the best thing in primetime and where he wanted to be.

“I thought there was no show on the air that was similar in terms of the combination of character and stories,” Moreno recalls. “Lots of shows are strong in one area or the other, but not both. It seemed both gritty and real, more than in other shows.”

Art of delegation

Of his three shows on the air (“Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Public”), Kelley is comfortable letting the writers come up with story ideas and then flushing them out. He has been criticized in the past for having difficulty delegating but says that he’s relieved not having to carry the load by himself anymore.

“This has been one of the most fun years for me because, first of all, it’s nice to get help. Any show starts out with characters that are very specific to the creator and it’s a little more difficult for other writers to approximate the voices and it is a voice-specific show,” says Kelley about handling the writing chores. “As you go on and other writers get to watch the series and see who these people are and how they have developed, they have a better chance of approximating the voices. I’ve got writers now who do that well but also bring legal stories to the table that I don’t have myself.

“There’s a period at the beginning of a series (when) you’re doing most of the writing and then you go through another period where you have the ideas and you’re assigning those stories and ideas to other people and hopefully they execute them. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a staff where they come into the room with their own ideas and specific takes on how to execute them and they do.”

The script process begins with the writers and exec producer and Kelley right-hand man Bob Breech gathered in a conference room to throw around story ideas. Usually, some scribes put together an “A” storyline while others work on a “B,” then Kelley fuses the two.

Alfonso says Kelley often tinkers with the script and may even give stories originally written for someone else to another character. For example, if there’s a plotline about a case involving attorney Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim), Kelley might change it for Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) if he believes she’s better suited.

Both Alfonso and Litt appreciate when Kelley takes the time to discuss changes he’s made on a script, but it’s not always possible due to his work schedule.

“I’ve gotten verbal input from him and it’s very helpful to get an explanation about why a change is made,” Litt says. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had access to him. What strikes me is that you can pitch a story and he can tell where it’s going. He finds the gold.”