Attorneys quick to offer reality check

Savvy viewers keeps showrunners honest

When it comes to legal dramas on television, there’s pre-O.J. and post-O.J.

Thanks to Mr. Simpson, Johnnie Cochran, et al, courtroom shows now have a checks-and-balance system. Viewers who might not have known a subpoena from an evidentiary hearing have become savvier and smarter; well, at least everyone knows what a sidebar is.

While that audience aptitude probably doesn’t affect Nielsen numbers, it can mold insiders’ opinions of the show. Especially if the skein prides itself on authenticity, something “The Practice” does.

But the jury is still out.

“The one thing that ‘The Practice’ gets right is that strategy often prevails over truth,” says Richard Binder, a senior partner at Pasadena-based Binder & Norris. “Even when there is a client who is guilty, it’s really about the tactics and the mistakes that opposing counsel makes. Unfair victories are a big part of this profession.”

While Binder doesn’t consider “The Practice” a totally accurate representation of the legal profession, he acknowledges that the series is more truthful in how the law is portrayed than earlier TV shows such as “Perry Mason,” and even the more recent offering “L.A. Law.”

“Those shows always made judges look perfect,” he says. “That’s just not the case. Just like every profession, the judiciary contains some problematic people who are corrupt or emotionally off-balance. And the clients’ personalities are as much a part of an attorney’s tactics as anything else. ‘The Practice’ understands that.”

That’s probably due to Chuck Rosenberg. As the credited creative consultant on the skein for two years, his job is to talk to the writers about the legal issues, read the scripts … and answer complaints.

Rosenberg says he hears few grumbles about the show’s realistic approach, “but I do get a lot of comments about one particular aspect: The amount of ex parte meetings — where counselors meet with a judge in chambers — seems to irk a lot of people who practice law. Especially when Bobby, Ellenor or Eugene will meet with a judge without opposing counsel present. That just doesn’t happen in reality.”

Rosenberg, however, thinks those assemblies are absolutely necessary.

“They’re a good way to explain feelings,” he says. “If you do it the right way, it gets in the way of the emotion, and we only have an hour.”

A second complaint is that objections are written in only for the sake of plot points, that no judge would allow a lawyer to badger, attack or buddy up with a witness the way David E. Kelley’s characters seem to do every week.

“They’ve got a point,” says Rosenberg, “but nobody should be that passionate about this. The purpose of objections on TV is to punctuate the drama, not to preserve the record for appeal.”

True enough, but what about fairness? David Steinman, an associate at Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich in San Diego, is all for artistic license, but he questions Hollywood’s love affair with dishonest lawyers.

“Fiction tends to overplay prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct,” he says. “But generally, that’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s not a surprise that there are shady lawyers, but in television shows that try to be real, there’s a big scandal every week.”

And there are some cases that Rosenberg believes would be hard-pressed to actually make it to trial.

The arc that opened up this season dealt with the Environmental Protection Agency and its responsibility to keep playgrounds safe is one example he cites.

“There were no grounds for a hearing,” Rosenberg says. “You can’t sue a federal agency for not performing a discretionary act.”

So why is Rosenberg even needed if Kelley and his writing team (which is made up of many attorneys) are going to sidestep the truth on something so fundamental?

“When I think the writer has avoided the tough issues, I say something,” says Rosenberg. “I help writers mine reality for better drama, but nobody ever pretended this was real. It’s good television, and that’s all we ever try to be.”