In an episode of "Law & Order," a district attorney tries to get a search warrant without probable cause. When the effort fails, he figures out a way in anyway.
A clip from legal drama "Shark" includes a cross-examination that's similarly unrealistic, at least to a viewer with a J.D.
But most viewers of these courtroom dramas aren't lawyers. The boring reality of a courtroom is less desirable than the antics on "Boston Legal," but legal-oriented shows also reflect -- or create -- a very negative view of the legal profession. Only days before the end of the writers' strike, Michael Asimow, a professor emeritus of UCLA School of Law, wondered where all the nice TV lawyers had gone.
"Why are they so nasty?" Asimow asked at an American Bar Association panel discussion about lawyers on TV. "There's a deep mistrust in the general public for our profession."
Valiant legal heroes like the relentlessly upright Perry Mason would get a client off, week after week, by calling the real killer to the stand and tripping him up on cross-exam. Today they have hallucinatory epiphanies about their soulless greed or take drugs and try to manipulate jury pools.
But most of the writers at the recent Beverly Hills, Calif., event indicated that their portrayals are simply the nature of the drama vehicle, and it's not their job to portray lawyers in a positive -- or completely authentic -- light.
"I don't think it's the writers' responsibility to make anyone look good," said Charles Rosenberg, a partner at Rosenberg Mendlin & Rosen who has been a credited technical adviser on shows such as "L.A. Law," "The Practice" and, currently, "Boston Legal." "The writers' responsibility is to entertain audiences within reasonable ethical boundaries, something for writers and producers to decide."
William Fordes, a lawyer who has written for numerous shows, including "Law & Order," and films such as "Presumed Innocent," agreed, saying he's neither an educator nor a booster of the profession.
"I, frankly, don't care," Fordes said. "I write about what amuses me."
When lawyers complain about the accuracy of television shows, they're usually complaining about procedural details that aren't all that important, Rosenberg said. Those details, if followed to a tee, could ruin the dramatic flow.
"I learned quickly that you have to do what is necessary to make a scene interesting," said Bill Chais, a lawyer who works on the CBS legal drama "Shark." "What we strive for sometimes is to make things sound right."
Besides, the lawyers on television really aren't all bad, said Craig Turk, a lawyer who is now a producer on the ABC series "Boston Legal."
In that show, fictional character Alan Shore, played by James Spader, may be ethically compromised, but he still sticks up for the underdog, Turk said.
"He's fighting for the right thing," he said, adding that, like Shore, most lawyers portrayed on television have some redeeming trait.
Turk said the courtroom and law office are much like hospital and cops shows, a high-stakes setting that can be used as a backdrop for drama. It's not intended to educate audiences on the law.
"It's an excuse to engage with the characters," he said.
And, from a professional standpoint, when producers come to you and say: Can we do this -- there's an inclination to say "yes," Chais said.
But that wasn't enough of an excuse for moderator Asimow, who linked lawyers' deteriorating reputation with the television shows' portrayal.
"Lawyers are the most hated and distrusted of all professions, and that wasn't always the case," he said. Asimow pointed to the 1970s and '80s when they were more in the middle of the professional pack.
"Since then, they have plunged," Asimow said.
He pointed to the studies that show people are indeed affected by what they see on television.
"People can be shown to internalize the information from fictitious shows," Asimow said.
"I don't care what happens out there," Fordes said. "That is not my job."
He cited the "CSI effect," in which real-life juries have unreasonable expectations of prosecutorial evidence based on what they've seen on TV procedurals, and said it's the lawyers' jobs to pick good juries and re-educate them if necessary.
"Whenever people say 'You guys make it difficult,' I think, 'You must not be a good lawyer -- do a better job,'" he said.
Rosenberg agreed that lawyers must re-educate jurors tainted by small-screen expectations.
"Audiences are smart -- most people understand the difference between fact and fiction," he said. "Would you watch a medical show and believe it's all true? No."
GETTING INTO THE INDUSTRY
In Los Angeles, every parking attendant has an unoptioned screenplay, and every manicurist has an agent. The lawyers watching the Beverly Hills seminar were no more immune to the Hollywood allure. Most were more interested in getting a writer's job than in debating the effect of dramatic portrayals. The lawyers concluded the discussion by talking about how they went from practicing law to writing about it.
As a practicing attorney, Rosenberg said, he gets inquiries from fellow lawyers all the time, asking how to get into the writing scene. Panelists took turns discussing their irregular career paths.
"Boston Legal" producer Turk, who'd been chief counsel of John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, "didn't love practicing law." He wanted to write a book, but took a friend's advice to start with a screenplay that had "tons of white space and wasn't that long." He wrote it, sent it to some contacts and, eventually, got a call that led to his first TV work.
Turk's tip was a familiar piece of writing advice: Comb your experiences and put them into your writing.
"Write about what you know," he said.
Fordes said he often gets ideas from stories he tears from newspaper pages. He said he recently combined a 10-year-old clipping on a kidnapping with the current backdrop of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Rosenberg recommends the writing life.
"It's fun because it allows me to get involved in drama without having the hard work of actually doing it," he said.
And working with the drama can be insightful for his own practice. Lawyers, he said, often go into trial with a long list of theories to prove, something that can get cumbersome and complicated for a jury.
"They'd be better off doing what drama says," he said. "You can only tell two stories at a time."