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JUDGING THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF 'L.A. LAW' : Acting Attorney Faces the Real Bar Association

August 31, 1987|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Legal Affairs Writer

The founding partner of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak carefully pondered the question about his state of mind upon receiving the invitation, as if his client's fortune--or his own reputation--depended on his response.

"Frightened," he said, opting for candor. "I was really frightened."

Richard Dysart, better known as Leland McKenzie of television's multiple-Emmy nominee "L.A. Law," needn't have worried. He wowed 'em.

A panel on legal ethics chaired by a videotape attorney seemed not only natural but necessary when the American Bar Assn. came to California recently, even if the setting was San Francisco instead of Hollywood.

It was the largest gathering of lawyers in world history, with 13,000 of the 335,000 members of the 109-year-old organization registered.

And Dysart, who played to about 250 of the attorneys, was the best show in town. "I bring you greetings from the firm McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney & Kuzak," he intoned in his best opening-statement oratory. "We are a downtown L.A. law firm, a fictional L.A. law firm with a very unusual speciality.

"We specialize in everything. We specialize in any case that takes our fancy. For a firm with six partners and three associates, we really get around."

McKenzie Brackman lawyers, he noted, now practice on British television as well as in the United States, prompting a British critic to describe his firm as "a superb cast of barristers who spend more time taking off their briefs than writing them."

The acting lawyers, he told the real lawyers, agree on two main points after a year in their pinstripe suits: First, they never want to hear another lawyer joke, and second, they have learned a healthy respect for real-life lawyers and their heavy workload.

Noting that law firms are reluctant to permit scrutiny by outsiders, Dysart invited the assembled attorneys to take a whack at McKenzie Brackman. He brought along two of the show's State Bar card-carrying lawyers and a couple of law professors to help.

Robert Breech, the supervising associate producer who is a lawyer, and Charles Rosenberg, a practicing lawyer with the firm of Rosenberg, Chittum & Hobbet and the show's technical adviser, provided videotape clips of some questionable legal practices on "L.A. Law."

Breech and Rosenberg said that the most criticism from lawyers occurred during the first three episodes of the series--prompting executive producer Steven Bochco to hire them.

Dr. Michael J. Kelly, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, said that the series has become a cult show among law students, partly because of "the inspiration it gives them for the infinite possibilities for sex."

Lawyers like the show, the professor said, because of the "flavor of reality"--the rush to please rich clients, the interplay between secretaries and lawyers, little things like the phone system that doesn't work, and dealing with clients they don't like.

A clip evaluated by Kelly showed divorce lawyer Arnold Becker confronting a pig that his client claims her estranged husband loves, while getting chewed out by the managing partner for tardiness on a wealthy client's prenuptial agreement. Kelly said that the episode could teach prospective lawyers things law schools omit such as the importance of managing their time, the art of negotiation and how to deal with defeat.

Dr. Stephen Gillers, professor of the New York University Law School, agreed that "L.A. Law" has "matured" since its legally shaky start and is now considered a teaching aid by many law instructors. Gillers called the show "the single most important cult artifact for discussing issues surrounding the role of lawyers."

"I don't think 'L.A. Law' will make the public like lawyers more," Kelly said. "But there is a chance that the public will understand lawyers better, and that is cause for a small hurrah for the ethics of 'L.A. Law.' "

"The reason for the show is entertainment. But we are also humanizing the lawyer in our society . . . so that people don't regard lawyers as witch doctors," Dysart said.

"I think it is healthy that we have a show that is entertaining but that also has content," said the veteran stage actor. "We just don't have much content on television."

Dysart remains as awed by lawyers' increasing interest in him as they are by meeting him in person. He has previously addressed Public Counsel, an organization that matches needy clients with attorneys willing to donate their services.

"I see this as a real example of how our society seems to accept illusion as reality," he said, watching the real lawyers file out to duller seminars. "But I felt if I was going to do television, I would do everything involved therein--if I could do it and if I found it enjoyable.

"And I do," he decided, content that he had clearly entertained if not enlightened his demanding live audience. "I like being around bright people. It is very interesting."

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