“L.A. Law” Retrospective (Part 8 of 8)

During its eight-year run on NBC from 1986 to 1994, L.A. Law showcased legal issues without tidying everything in a package for the audience.  It was a more realistic way of looking at law practice, which can be messy, full of ambiguities, conflicts, and unresolved matters.

In Yale Law Journal (Volume 98, 1989), noted legal ethics scholar Stephen Gillers explains the portrayal of law on L.A. Law, the lawyer’s role in the justice system, and the need for flexibility in law practice.

“[An attorney] has to reconcile the dissonance between his responsibility to achieve the client’s goal and his personal doubts about the wisdom of that goal.  The creative challenge to L.A. Law is how to have a result for cases raising hard issues without pretending to have the solution to the dilemmas they pose.  The world of popular entertainment and the world of law each requires a result.  A story must have an ending of sorts; a court proceeding must have a judgment.  Yet due regard for the ambiguity and complexity of issues like these makes it imperative that the show not pretend to have solved them in less than an hour.”

Indeed, L.A. Law succeeded in portraying both sides of extremely complex issues.  For example, the title of the fourth season episode Noah’s Bark refers to Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition of Noah Cowan (played by Lenny Wolpe).  Jonathan Rollins represents him in an employment law case.  Despite Noah’s superior market research knowledge, ability, and expertise, he got fired because Tourette’s Syndrome constantly forces him to utter unwanted words.  Disruption in the workplace ensues.

While one empathizes with Noah, the employer argues that Noah’s behavior disturbs the work setting to a highly significant degree, causing a reduction in productivity.  Jonathan wins the case with a judgment of $100,000 plus $150,000 in back pay.  Noah accepts his employer’s alternative offer instead:  $50,000, a new car, a promotion.  There is one catch, however.  Noah has to work from home.  In this instance, the client wants his job, not merely the money to compensate the loss of a job.

True Brit, a fourth season episode, addresses the issue of attorney-client privilege.  Jonathan’s girlfriend and co-worker Diana Moses (played by Renee Jones) finds herself legally obligated to her friend Manny Jackson (played by Jeff Kizer).  Jackson tells her that he hit a boy on a bike with his car and left the scene without reporting the incident. The boy is dead, lying in a ditch.  His parents are unaware of his location.  Attorney-client privilege of confidentiality applies.  Diana and the other lawyers at McKenzie Brackman cannot disclose the location of the body.  The boy’s parents are devastated as they want the simple dignity of burying their son.

By nature, a lawyer’s job is adversarial.  Conflicts come with the territory.  L.A. Law differed from previous law-oriented programs by displaying conflicts beyond those arising in cases.  Personal battles for lawyers were front and center, showcasing conflicts within themselves, and among their colleagues, office mates, partners, rivals, and, sometimes, clients.

Charles B. Rosenberg, the legal adviser for L.A. Law responded to the Gillers article in the same issue of the Yale Law Journal.  He explains the show’s depiction of the legal profession.

“Critics could say that McKenzie Brackman is an odd firm.  It is partner heavy, its economics are murky, and the mix of practice specialties is at best eclectic.  On the other hand, it portrays much about law firms that is pristinely true:  lawyers often feel overworked, they often like each other but nonetheless feel a certain rivalry within the firm, money is an important status symbol, and some lawyers are not-so-nice.  L.A. Law has also made the ethics of lawyers a subject of some angst for the show’s characters.  While lawyers have been shown in the past as sleazy or unethical, it is rare for a television show or movie to explore the ethical situation as L.A. Law often does.  While the ethics of the show’s lawyers is not perfect, it is at least examined.

“In the long run, the show’s greatest impact may well be on the public’s perception of the lawyer-characters as people with real emotions and sometimes difficult lives — people who doe not always love their clients or their colleagues, people who sometimes lose…Thus, if L.A. Law merely serves to sensitize the general public to the fact that lawyers are real people with real emotions, it will have served an important role for the profession.”

Court is adjourned.

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