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The Practice—Emmy Winning Episode?

by Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (January 1998)

The Practice has presented consistently above average law-firm drama from its inauspicious Saturday night 10 PM time slot. It features a bottom-feeding scrappy law firm struggling to survive by taking cases nobody else wants. Ethical dilemmas are frequently presented and ethical rules often stretched. Some of the story lines verge on soapopera as L. A. Law did so often. But many of the stories on The Practice have been exceptionally interesting.

The firm's five lawyers (three men, two women), are carefully sketched and quite believable. Most of them seem to have rather desolate personal lives. All are dedicated to their clients and to the firm's survival. The firm includes a strongly written black character, Eugene. The two women (Ellenor and Lindsay) are excellent lawyers. Their characters are balanced, interesting, and nuanced (so different from the consistently negative portrayals of female lawyers in the movies or from the trashy Ally McBeal). Lindsay, for example, is a whiz at search and seizure. As a result, she has developed a practice of representing drug dealers whom she thoroughly despises.

The senior lawyer, Bobby Donnell, is a superb advocate, who experiences a huge amount of stress in keeping the firm together. The fifth lawyer, Jimmy, was a bank loan officer before joining the firm. Bobby took him in as a favor after Jimmy lost his bank job by giving the firm a loan they didn't qualify for. Seriously deficient in lawyerly skills but determined to carry his weight somehow, Jimmy is the most interesting character of all. His deposition of the defendant in a dogbite case recently was quite memorable. The firm's sole secretary, Rebecca, calms emotional outbursts, provides sage personal counsel, and worries about the receivables.

In its November 22 episode, The Practice transcended the TV courtroom genre and delivered an astonishing and deeply moving episode that deserves Emmy consideration. Donnell's firm is called in to a Southern state by the Death Penalty Project with only eighteen hours to go before the scheduled execution of convicted killer Randy Jefferson. There are serious questions about the fairness of Jefferson's trial and there have been numerous lawyer goofs in the post-conviction appellate process.

Frantically, the firm's lawyers try everythingclemency board, state and federal habeas, the governoras the seconds tick away. They come up with evidence that the prosecutor suppressed critical evidence (a lie detector test given to the jailhouse snitch whose testimony convicted Jefferson). There's a brief stay by the Fifth Circuit which the Supreme Court immediately vacates. The lethal drug is administered and Jefferson dies. And the lawyers now have to return to their law practice and their lives.

In intensity, the script and performances approach that of the remarkable film Dead Man Walking. The format is that a documentarian is making a film about Jefferson's last day and the legal machinations intended to halt or delay the execution. The use of hand-held cameras and off-screen questions by the documentarian is ingenious and very effective as a dramatic device. All players, including the victim's parents and Jefferson's family, get to say their piece. Public opinion is sampled. Each lawyer gets to reveal his or her feelings. Ellenor (normally the consummate technician) says that she used to be fervently against the death penalty. Now, after a friend was murdered, she's not so sure. She now has a car, she says, but no bumper stickers.

The focus is the effect the Jefferson case has on the five lawyers. The stress, obviously, is almost unbearable. Their emotions are on a roller-coaster as they glimpse some hope and then it is dashed. This is the real strength of the Randy Jefferson episode--and of many stories on The Practice: the insights into a lawyer's working life and the effect law practice (especially criminal defense) has on a lawyer's feelings of self-worth.

Jimmy draws the job of being with Jefferson in his death row cell during the final day and evening. As always, Jimmy is stuck with the task nobody else wants, one that doesn't call for any legal skills. Jimmy has to relate to Jefferson (who tries to make it easy for him) and his family. But Jimmy hates the whole business. He loathes Jefferson, sympathizes with the victim and her family, and favors the death penalty in this case. By the end, though, he has bonded with Jefferson and isn't so sure about his views.

I suspect The Practice won't survive another season. It has little chance to draw an audience in its time slot. Its demise would be a shame, because (like Law and Order and Michael Hayes) The Practice is consistently excellent. Sometimes, as in the Nov. 22th episode, it is truly and memorably outstanding.

[Editor's note: someone at ABC was listening.   With much fanfare, The Practice moves to Monday night in January.]

Michael AsimowMichael Asimow, of UCLA Law School, is co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies (1996), available at local bookstores or through amazon.com.


Click here for commentaryMichael Asimow returns with another comment on The Practice.

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