For years, David E. Kelley had lived with the fear. The lawyer-turned-writer/producer, known for his evocative fictional legal eagles and his prolific way with words, sensed it was only a matter of time before the booming reality genre he so despised crossed into the television world he had created.
"When reality television was proliferating, I was a great champion of the idea -- I so loved it -- that I thought, 'Oh, my God, what's gonna happen next?" the creator of "Ally McBeal," "The Practice" and "Boston Legal," said facetiously.
"Somebody's gonna come along and do what I'm doing on 'The Practice' for real," he said. "And I thought if somebody did come along and told those little stories, not necessarily the A-murder stories but the little stories that we tell in the practice of law, the stakes are just exponentially bigger when you know those clients aren't actors. It would be far more compelling than anything we could offer. So it really was a fear that I lived with."
The fear turned into reality in more ways than one. Enter David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe, partners at Renegade 83 and the producers of "The Surreal Life" and "Blind Date," who were seeking to make reality television "more real." The duo had conceived a legal-based unscripted series that would pit 12 civil litigators against one another as they tried real-life cases in front of judges and juries whose verdicts were binding. But the producers were missing one element:
"If we could somehow work it out where lawyers were really trying cases on TV, where there are real consequences and real verdicts and real people, we thought that could be an incredible drama," Garfinkle said. "And the guy who created all the dramas in the '90s and in the year 2000 is David Kelley. What better person to partner up with?"
That might have made absolute sense if Kelley hadn't been so public about his anti-reality sentiment, even dedicating one episode of "The Practice" in 2003 to slamming unscripted fare with a story line about a woman so obsessed with reality television that she kidnapped CBS top honcho Leslie Moonves (who played himself) to get her 15 minutes of fame.
"Renegade came up with the concept, which coincided with my biggest fear, if you will," Kelley said. "But what appealed to me about it was that it was not going to be a forum to exploit or take advantage of the contestants, which is where I find reality television at its worst. It just degrades the people and the television medium as well. But where reality television can be more noble is when it offers its contestants the opportunity to succeed, such as what an 'American Idol' does or even 'The Apprentice.' Where those shows work best is when those contestants come on and surprise you with their talent and their intelligence. And this endeavored, at least, in the conceptual stage, to be such a show."
So Renegade and David E. Kelley Productions joined forces to create "The Law Firm," which premieres on NBC on July 28. And the first order of business became hiring a managing partner who would run the law firm, evaluate the performance of the lawyers and decide who got to stay and vie for the $250,000 cash prize. Kelley's top pick: prominent trial attorney and legal analyst Roy Black, who has represented high-profile clients, such as William Kennedy Smith and Rush Limbaugh.
"I'd always been a fan of his, not just as a lawyer -- he's a great lawyer -- but I was also very impressed by his television acumen," Kelley said. "I've watched him on the 'Today' show for years, and he has a very finely tuned sense of getting into the center of a conflict and the issue. That's obviously something important in television: someone who can articulate it quickly and hold the interest of the viewers."
Black was intrigued when he first spoke to Kelley, but it wasn't a fast sell. A trial lawyer for 35 years and a professor at the University of Miami law school, Black asked for personal guarantees from Kelley and NBC Universal President Jeff Zucker that "The Law Firm" would be a sophisticated, legitimate courtroom show that would give viewers an inside look at the work entailed in preparing a trial without embarrassing or humiliating the participants.
"What I was really interested in was showing how the lawyers really are, not the sort of image the public has," Black said. "The public has no idea how much work lawyers do behind the scenes. They don't know it takes 50 hours of preparation for every hour in court. They think we all show up in a nice three-piece suit and start talking in the courtroom, without knowing the kind of work it takes beforehand."