THE GUILTY PLEASURES OF
REUNIONS--LA LAW: THE MOVIE
By Michael Asimow
Ever gone to a high school
reunion? There's guilty pleasure in seeing how everyone has aged
while you, of course, look just like you did the day you graduated.
Or you can revel in how the ones who were most popular and successful
in high school have struggled to get by in later life.
pleasures attended the tenth reunion of the law firm of McKenzie,
Brackman. Here they were--most of the old cast members of LA
Law--together again! Why, it was the very same crowd that
spent an hour a week in our living room from 1986 to 1994 (before
the show fizzled out amid a departure of key cast members and
an epidemic of weak scripts). And now we find out what's happened
to each of them in the ensuing ten years. This was the show that
was a ratings sensation in its early years and attracted hordes
of money-hungry applicants to the law schools.
How wonderful to see these
old friends again! Leland McKenzie has retired and is clipping
roses in Montecito but Douglas Brackman is still managing partner.
Indeed, Douglas' son is now an associate with the firm, but he
doesn't exactly share Douglas' bottom-line approach to law. Michael
Kuzak has left the firm and now runs a successful bar (Michael
gave up the law after a client for whom he had won an acquittal
raped and killed a new victim). Arnie Becker--yes, good old Arnie--is
going through a divorce from his much younger wife. Stuart Markowitz
and Ann Kelsey--who are still married and have a kid at Crossroads
School--have opened their hearts (and their checking account)
to their guru. Benny Stulwicz --still there, fetching Starbucks
and Krispy Kremes for the staff. Roxanne, now the office manager,
is still having problems with her dorky ex, Dave. Grace Van Owen
has become Los Angeles DA and is as tough and tight-lipped as
ever. And so on.
But wait--they look so much
older than when we saw them last! Roxanne has put on a lot of
weight and Arnie has lost his hair. He's just not the hunk he
used to be. Douglas and Leland look much older. Grace, Stuart
and Ann are aging, too. Michael Kuzak looks terrific.
The reunion movie wasn't one
of the best LA Laws (at least as I recall them) but it wasn't
bad either. I thought the energy level was quite a bit lower
than the way I remembered it. The main story involved Kuzak's
coming out of retirement to handle a stay of execution for a
client he had represented years ago. Entertainingly, but implausibly,
Kuzak manages to establish that the client was framed; he walks
out of the courtroom a free man. Grace is defeated again! (But
will former lovers Michael and Grace get together again??) Stuart
and Anne are ripped off by their guru. Arnie discovers his wife
(from whom he is separated) in bed with another man and declares
war. He's going to fight the divorce to the bitter end, demand
all of the property, seek custody of the dogs (whom he detests).
Abby Perkins (who now has her
own law firm) emerges to represent Arnie's wife--and shows up
with eight forensic accountants to audit McKenzie, Brackman and
establish the value of Arnie's interest in the firm. Dave contacts
Roxanne and announces that he has cancer and has only a few weeks
left; can she shelter him in his last days? (Or is he still just
the old scam artist?) A new female associate is on the make for
Ann's client and Arnie's body. So there is an abundance of thematic
material in the reunion show. It is somewhat like Bartok's Concerto
for Orchestra--everybody gets to play a solo.
So how come we have such fond memories for this TV show that
was really part law story, part soap opera? Watching the reunion
show brought back some of the reasons.
First, LA Law opened
the way for the type of law shows on TV that we now take for
granted. Prior to LA Law, lawyers on TV were solo practitioners,
often in the painfully formulaic Perry Mason or Matlock mode.
Like The Defenders from the 1960's, none of the TV lawyers
ever appeared to care about money and none ever had an ethical
problem. LA Law was about law the way it's practiced today--in
firms, for dollars. Today, we want our TV lawyers to be realistic.
We know that the law is full of shadowy ethical conflicts without
simple answers, that the adversary system often conceals the
truth and produces injustice, that clients are not all innocent
or even decent people, and that practicing law is a tough and
very stressful way to make a living. Lawyers on TV (and in real
life) often wonder what they hell they are doing with their lives.
We would never have The Practice or Law & Order
if LA Law had not gone first.
Second, LA Law did a
great job in probing the business v. profession conflict that
is at the root of the problems of law practice today. Is law
just another profit-making business--no different from selling
advertising or sweaters--or is it still a "profession"?
Should you extract every possible dollar from every client by
overbilling or charging $2 per page for sending or receiving
faxes? Or do the old ideas of professionalism still hold, such
as putting the client's interest before the lawyer's, maintaining
some independence from clients, or recognizing the obligation
to do pro bono work? This is the era of mega-firms, soaring associate
salaries, seven-figure profit shares, 2400 billable hours a year,
disappearing civility, and brutal competition among lawyers and
within law firms. In this Darwinian world, the business model
holds sway and the professional model has nearly collapsed. .
On LA Law, we saw the
business/profession battle being fought out within the partnership
every week. Brackman was always bottom line; all that counted
were billable hours, collecting fees, avoiding clients who couldn't
pay. Arnie Becker was always interested in pumping up the hours
and turning friendly divorces into lucrative vendettas. Before
her untimely demise, Rosalind Shays carried the profit incentive
to the max. On the other hand, McKenzie often stuck up for the
professional model, aided by Michael Kuzak and Ann Kelsey.
This old struggle played out
well in the reunion show. Kuzak wanted to represent his former
client in the death penalty hearing but he needed backup from
the firm. Brackman wouldn't hear of it. After all, Kuzak hasn't
worked there for years, the firm doesn't do criminal law (at
least not that kind of criminal law), and this client can't pay
a nickel. Kuzak goes to the retired McKenzie for support and
also gets enthusiastic backing from Markowitz and Brackman's
son. Well, folks, Douglas Brackman is the way law is practiced
today. It's pretty much all bottom line. Pro bono and all that
soft stuff is shoved aside.
Third, LA Law was the
first of the law shows to deal with the personal life of its
characters, as The Practice continues to do. Perry
Mason and The Defenders apparently had no lives outside
the office (Law & Order maintains this tradition).
But the lawyers of LA Law were all too human. Just because
they were great lawyers did not make them great human beings
or give them good judgment about their lives. Indeed, their personal
lives were mostly a shambles. And so it is in real life too.
Many lawyers today have no time for a personal life, much less
a life-style, and don't know how to spend all that money (once
they've paid back their six-figure student loans). The rates
of alcoholism and drug abuse among lawyers are far higher than
in the general population.
In the reunion show, we see
smart lawyers acting like personal idiots. Take a tax lawyer
like Stuart Markowitz--he'd watch out for a client's every nickel.
Yet Stuart and Ann give their guru the power to draw from their
checking account for his new building project! Arnie Becker,
who knows better than anyone how utterly destructive a nasty
divorce can be, decides that he's going to be as vindictive in
his own divorce as any of his clients ever were. Real lawyers
can be just as stupid and self-destructive in their personal
lives as the characters in this show.
So it was with nostalgic feelings
and guilty delight that this aging LA Law fan welcomed
his aging friends from McKenzie, Brackman back into his living
room. Who knows? Maybe we'll all see each again at the twentieth
Posted: May 21, 2002