The Case of the Loopy LawyersThane Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2011
By THANE ROSENBAUM
In "Franklin & Bash," which premiered this month on TNT, two debauched playboys join a tony law firm and introduce their new colleagues to the joys of hot tubs and karaoke. "Harry's Law," which just finished its first season on NBC, features a zany, pistol-packing Kathy Bates, who starts her own criminal defense law firm. In "Suits," which debuts next week on USA, a guy without a college or law degree successfully masquerades as an attorney.
In these new shows, ambulance chasers mainly chase skirts, and the street-smart lawyer is more like a street performer. Even the book-lined law office has become optional. The firm in "Harry's Law" also sells fine shoes. And the titular lawyers in "Franklin & Bash" initially practice out of a home office that is more "Animal House" than "The Paper Chase." In the recent film "The Lincoln Lawyer," the character played by Matthew McConaughey conducts business from the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car.
It wasn't always this way. In the 1960s, attorneys were portrayed in movies and on TV as austere and serious men who practiced law with great moral conviction. Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," remains the paradigm of that lawyerly vision, taking on an unwinnable case in a courtroom contaminated by prejudice.
These lawyers exuded trust and confidence, but their emotions remained hidden. In "Perry Mason," which ran on TV from 1957 to 1966, the stern defense attorney lost only one case, but he never seemed to savor his victories and rarely ventured from the courtroom. We surely never saw him drive a Porsche or dine at expensive L.A. restaurants. Fictional lawyers lived drab, colorless lives that were well suited to the days of black-and-white TV.
In those days, of course, there was less curiosity about lawyers. There were far fewer of them; most practiced solo or with family members. Corporate law held little allure.
Everything changed in the 1980s and '90s. The entire culture was adapting to a more confessional age, and TV law firms were suddenly staffed by lawyers who possessed inner lives and dealt with issues of privacy and intimacy—abortion, AIDS, divorce, child custody.
And with the booming stock market of the Reagan and Clinton years, the relationship between law and money was more explicitly revealed. TV lawyers lived well and celebrated their success. The corporate law firm became, improbably, a favorite fictional setting for office romance and moral quandary.
"L.A. Law" revolutionized the legal drama. Here was a firm straight from central casting. The lawyers were intellectually vigorous and sexually active, and they carried themselves like starlets and leading men. Los Angeles added a colorful backdrop for lawyers no longer confined to courtrooms. They drove Bentleys, wore designer clothes and worked late into the night in sparkling offices. In the early days of television, married couples slept in separate beds. On "L.A. Law," the attorneys had more trysts than trials.
Still, even in the stereotypically lush setting of L.A., these lawyers were beset by real-world problems and moral dilemmas. Minority and female characters dreamed of the privileges of partnership, and they remained true believers in the virtues of the law.
"L.A. Law" did, on occasion, drift from the superficial to the surreal, revealing perhaps the hand of David E. Kelley, a writer for the show and, eventually, the undisputed clown prince of the legal drama. Mr. Kelley is the originator of the loopy, antic TV lawyer so familiar to us today. From "Picket Fences" to "Ally McBeal," "The Practice," "Boston Legal" and now "Harry's Law," nearly 20 years of television have showcased his imaginative mix of novel legal issues and messy personal lives.
Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) was more fixated on her biological clock than on her billable time. When she wasn't sharing a co-ed bathroom at the firm or singing on a nightclub stage with her colleagues, she conjured an imaginary dancing baby. Alan Shore from "Boston Legal," portrayed by James Spader, was a court jester who openly mocked decorum and was always one pounded gavel away from disbarment.
Mr. Kelley depicted lawyers who were not only emotionally complex but also fallible and weighed down by moral conflict. Atticus Finch always knew what was right. The next generation of fictional attorneys, even the decent ones, were no longer so sure. They didn't win all of their cases, and they sometimes regretted winning the more dubious ones.
Writers like Mr. Kelley understood the cultural shift that had created so much cynicism toward once hallowed institutions like the legal profession. His fictional lawyers suffered from the broken trust of their clients; lawyers no longer received the benefit of the doubt, which is why they expressed so much self-doubt and indulged in self-destructive behavior.
Though the luster of what it once meant to be a lawyer has worn off, some righteousness endures in the TV legal drama. The personal virtue of Atticus Finch and his piety about the law were revived in recent years by the assistant D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) on "Law & Order" and the morally anguished Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) on "The Practice."
That today's more loutish TV lawyers, the degenerate offspring of Alan Shore, have upped the ante on lunacy is no surprise. The entire legal profession has come under scrutiny, and lawyers fear the future, as job losses mount and the "billable hour" gives way to less lucrative arrangements. Attorneys are now being depicted not just as unethical charmers but as conflicted souls who are unsure about whether they entered the right profession. Some act as if they hope to be thrown out; others simply walk away.
"Fairly Legal," which premiered this year on USA, features a female attorney who abandons the war zone of the law for the more humanizing possibilities of mediation. In "The Good Wife," which just completed its second season on CBS, lawyers are still sexy, but the trials of their lives are more important than their cases before the court.
Bleak as these depictions may be, they are still improvements over Herman Melville's 1853 short story, "Bartleby, the Scrivener," with its dreary portrayal of law-firm life. Ah, the modern Bartlebys, still declaring "I prefer not to." With the economy in shambles and shackled to law-school debt, they can only hope to fall down the rabbit hole and wind up on the set of "Franklin & Bash."
—Mr. Rosenbaum is a novelist and law professor at Fordham University, where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.