"The American legal system does a pretty fair job when both sides are represented by competent lawyers, but there are always those blind spots where legal logic leads to absurd results."
"On one level, the Capras movie was a romantic comedy, but on a deeper level it was a depression era fable about how class antagonism could be refined into New Deal liberalism."
Some Pretty Classy Lawyers: The Practice
John Denvir, University of San Francisco School of Law (November 1998)David Kelleys The Practice has opened its second season. Starting as a dark horse entry late on Saturday night, the show finished up by winning several Emmys and laying serious claim to be the true successor to television "lawyer" classic series like LA Law and The Defenders. It seems a good time to ask what kind of magic Kelley is working.
The opening episode has all the key elements of The Practices basic strategy. One part is a sort of legal Ripleys "Believe It or Not". The American legal system does a pretty fair job when both sides are represented by competent lawyers, but there are always those blind spots where legal logic leads to absurd results. This episodes example centers on two young men who are both accused of killing a teenage girl. Each tells exactly the same story: the other defendant did it. Since they are the only two witnesses, how can a jury find either guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt?" Kelley has a talent for setting up this "believe or not" scenario, but its difficult to sustain show after show, year after year. I dont think this is the Kelley "secret."
The second ingredient is ambivalence towards the ethical quality of legal practice. This episode revolves around the guilt which Ellenor feels when she realizes that she has unknowingly employed one of her lawyer "tricks" to the detriment of her friend and colleague Bobby Donal. She is so disgusted by her own "win at any cost" tactics that she indulges herself in a monologue about how lawyers manipulate the system to free guilty defendants so they can return to the streets to rob, rape, and pillage once again. This sort of "lawyer angst" is another staple of the Kelley "touch." Ellenor is usually upset about getting creeps "off." Eugene is angry that innocent poor people are often convicted, and Lindsey is always worrying about her Harvard Law education being used to free drug traffickers. Once again, this angle is a difficult one to prolong show after show, year after year. The viewer knows that the adversary system has its flaws. Sometimes the guilty are freed or the innocent convicted, but nobody, certainly not Kelley, is seriously suggesting alternatives. In this episode, Ellenor is so upset that she asks Bobby for a leave from the firm. He refuses her the leave, but perhaps it would be a good idea for the series as a whole. Ellenor as a (sic) barmaid in the local legal watering hole might make an interesting plot development. She could then taunt her former colleagues with a clean conscience.
I believe that the essence of Kelleys magic is not weird plots or lawyer guilt; its his ability to play on the American fascination with issues of class. This is especially interesting since ideologically Americans dont believe in "class" which we prefer to see as a European vice. Still the fact is that the Kennedys and Rockefellers are not like you and me. In the episode under discussion, Ellenors disenchantment with law is contrasted with the joy experienced by office manager Rebecca upon receipt of the news that she has passed the Bar exam after five years of study at night law school. We see a similar burst of parvenu pride when Bobby Donal shows his father the firms new conference room. All Bobbys colleagues knew that Bobbys dad worked for a big corporate firm; what they didnt know was that he was a janitor.
The discovery of Bobbys social origins informs us that all of the "regulars", except Lindsey, appear to come from working class backgrounds. Usually its Jimmy is assigned the role of he socially ascendant immigrant who has finally achieved the American dream. Now it appears that Rebecca will join him in this role. Here Kelley is showing us an important fact about American life; whatever the moral quality of the practice of law, sociologically it denotes entry into American middle class. Eugene and Ellenor are one stage beyond Jimmy and Rebecca on the class escalator; they realize that the price of social mobility may well be moral ambiguity.
But the two most interesting characters, Bobby and Lindsey, even more tellingly highlight the American uneasiness about class. Lindsey is a blue blood who might have wandered in off the "Ally McBeal" set. She was Harvard Law and destined for a big corporate firm; yet she is fascinated with Donals "street practice" just as she attempts to bring the firm a more "respectable" image. Donal on his side is the "outlaw" who disdains the big corporate lawyers who dishonored his Dad, but whose respect he still craves. You might say that Bobby is the poor kid hanging around outside the country club while Lindsey is the debutante who likes boys who ride motorcycles. Most Americans can identify with one or the other, or both.
The central metaphor in the episode then becomes the conference room which Lindsey has convinced Bobby the firm needs for its expanding practice. Kelley shows us the room; its not much, the combination of institutional modern and fake antique that youll find in any moderately successful PI defense firm in a middle-sized American city. But to Lindsey it represents the hope that she can have it both ways: the "charge" of Bobbys practice with the social prestige of the corporate law firm. Bobby is smarter than Lindsey on this issue; he knows he cant have it both ways. If he becomes a "respected member of the Bar" he loses the "outlaw" status he (and Lindsey) both value so highly. Still he finally succumbs to the conference room. Why? It makes his pop so proud.
Kelleys treatment of class has good bloodlines, going back at least as far as Frank Capras It happened One Night where street smart Clark Gable matches wits with the elegant, but needy Claudette Colbert. On one level, the Capras movie was a romantic comedy, but on a deeper level it was a depression era fable about how class antagonism could be refined into New Deal liberalism. So too, Kelley is showing us a struggle most privileged Americans fight internally: the class war between the James Dean and the Grace Kelly which lurks within each of us. He seems to know an important secret about Americans--Class--we cant live with it or without it.