The Practice Makes Perfect — Well, Almost


Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott): You think it’s tough defending the guilty, Lindsay? Try the innocent. It’s terrifying.

— “Pilot” episode of The Practice (1997)

Anderson Pearson (Edward Herrmann): At a minimum, this suit would cost you a quarter of a million dollars to prosecute. Who’s going to front that? You? [Your client]? For a case that can’t be won?

Eugene Young (Steve Harris): Who says it can’t be won?

Pearson: You have some secret strategy unknown to any other law firm in the world?

Young: We cheat.

— “Pilot” episode of The Practice (1997)

Hear Ye. Hear Ye. The Honorable DVD is Now in Circulation!

It’s about time David E. Kelley’s award-winning legal drama The Practice received DVD treatment. On a personal level, nobody, and I mean nobody, is happier to see The Practice on DVD than I am, because nobody, and I mean nobody, is a bigger fan of The Practice than me.

Quite frankly, a DVD of The Practice should’ve been released a long time ago, and it bothers me when people insinuate that Kelley’s most recent legal series, Boston Legal, a spin-off of The Practice, is better than The Practice. Sure, James Spader as Alan Shore, the ethics-shirking lawyer with a heart of gold trim, is great, and Captain Kirk’s (excuse me, William Shatner’s) quirky, absentminded rich guy routine is funny, even though it’s starting to wear thin. And I’ll even admit that the Boston Legal pair of Spader and Shatner beat the crap out of The Practice‘s lawyers (but they didn’t have three of their biggest guns) in a head-to-head case as The Practice moved closer to its series conclusion. But come on. Boston Legal is all right for what it is — Ally McBeal meets Airplane, maybe — but it’s nothing compared to The Practice. Nothing.

David E. Kelley is an incredible talent, a writer who isn’t so much concerned with keeping his finger on the audience’s pulse as he is with being in tune to the way his audience breathes. He’s always had a knack for writing oddly drawn, breathtakingly memorable characters existing slightly inside the bounds of reality — and sometimes in reality’s suburbs. Check out the shows Kelley has worked on (I mean, the good ones): L.A. Law, Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, and, yes, even Boston Legal. But, as far as legal dramas go, Kelley got it right with The Practice. I’ll even go so far as to say The Practice is the best lawyer show of all time. Period.

Opening Statement

But before I get all teary-eyed, let’s make sure we’re all up to speed about this show’s premise and major figures. The Practice revolves around defense attorney Robert G. Donnell, brought to life by Dylan McDermott, and he is our tour guide through the wondrously hectic and sometimes wacky world of the Boston, Massachusetts legal community. He doesn’t reveal himself through voiceovers, like the private eyes used to do, “She was a real looker, see. She had legs that went from here to there and back again.” Instead, we discover Robert Donnell through his cases and the choices he makes during the representation of his clients.

We find Donnell to be an ambitious but unsettled composite: part Atticus Finch (the lawyer of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, ubiquitous in law circles as a symbol of sticking to one’s innate sense of justice regardless of popular opinion and the odds of prevailing), part practitioner (because one’s innate sense of justice won’t pay the rent), and part maverick and risk-taker (something like A Civil Action‘s account — the book, not the movie — of real life lawyer Jan Schlictmann’s famous and often-studied water pollution and personal injury case against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods).

Donnell is a man of depth and complexity. Principally, he has a desire to “make it” as a lawyer, but he also has a fear of what “making it” might entail. When he was a kid, his father worked as a janitor at a “prestigious” law firm (you know, the ones that don’t advertise on TV and have really big, shiny conference tables). It was through the lens of his father’s position in this environment that Donnell became distrustful of divisions based on class, power, and social status. Like a comic book hero, Donnell vowed that he would never become “the law firm across the street”.

“Why do you keep doin’ this?” James Berluti asks Donnell. “You could go to any firm you want…Take a nice fat paycheck. You don’t have to keep lookin’ over your shoulder for creditors or clients who are lookin’ to kill ya.”

With a wry, sheepish smile, Robert Donnell responds, “Maybe I like lookin’ over my shoulder.”

We also learn, in “The Blessing” episode and in the course of a case about assisted-suicide, that when he was a kid, his mother suffered from cancer. The treating physician refused to halt life-sustaining treatment, and his father was emotionally overwhelmed, leaving young Robert Donnell to unplug his mother’s respirator to mitigate his mother’s pain and his father’s grief.

Throughout the series, Donnell’s actions demonstrate his view that the law is organic and malleable in the Legal Realist (or maybe that’s “relativist”) tradition. He is a strict constructionist of the law when it suits him; when it doesn’t, he’s not. It’s the elasticity of his rationale and his scrappy never-say-die defense of his clients that have earned him a reputation as a slimy defense lawyer who relies on stunts and legal tricks.

Michael Badalucco (as Jimmy Berluti)

In the “Dog Bite” episode, Bobby’s associate attorneys Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) and Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim) are in danger of being disbarred for failing to disclose a flirtatious communication between Lindsay and a juror from her trial. When the juror tells Lindsay that there’s “no way” her client will be convicted, Ellenor convinces Lindsay that they’d only be “ruining” the client’s acquittal by reporting the incident to the judge.

Bobby goes ballistic, “This is beyond stupid! You risked your careers! You completely jeopardized the reputation of this firm!” To this, Ellenor snaps back,

“Bobby, all we did was live up to your example…You just finished arguing jury nullification. You got a murderer off on the moral integrity of his cold-blooded execution. What exactly do you think our reputation is here, Bobby?…We are ‘reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee’. We are a bottom-feeding, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-your-client-off law firm. And what Lindsay and I did may not have been ethical [but] it was completely in the spirit and the tradition of Bobby Donnell.”

In spite of all this, Robert Donnell is of course the character that the audience is intended to root for, even if we’re not supposed to identify with him or like what he’s doing. Most of the characters call him “Bobby” and, as we know, characters who go by nicknames and diminutives are often meant to be “likeable”. Also, it doesn’t hurt that actor Dylan McDermott is charismatic, easy on the eyes, and capable of breathing believability into his character’s conflicts and contradictions.

My, what a different show The Practice would have been — and probably not for the better — with a different lead actor! All you have to do is mentally replace McDermott with David Spade or the “McDreamy” doctor guy with the amazing hair (Patrick Dempsey) from Grey’s Anatomy, and yikes! The importance of fine casting comes into focus.

Unlike many television lawyers who are well established, Robert Donnell (hereinafter referred to as “Bobby” or “Bobby Donnell”) has been in practice for several years but he’s still barely making the rent. He’s trying to “turn the corner”, he says with double meaning in the second episode, as he sits in the back of a taxi, lamenting his inability to get a client to pay his legal fees. Bobby isn’t raking in the cash, unlike his wealthier counterparts in L.A. Law‘s firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, & Kuzak or Ally McBeal‘s Cage & Fish. On Shark, James Woods’ Sebastian Stark built a courtroom in his home to help him hone his trial strategy. Bobby, on the other hand, has a raggedy office with tattered furniture, old pizza boxes, and papers bursting out of filing cabinets.

The Players in the System

Bobby Donnell started out as a solo practitioner, aided by Rebecca Washington (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who essentially functioned as his secretary, legal assistant, office manager, accountant, and his conscience. That’s the back-story. When the show begins, though, he has assembled a close-knit team of talented attorneys to work with him at Donnell & Associates:

Steve Harris (as Eugene Young)

1. Eugene Young (Steve Harris), a former private investigator, is essentially Bobby’s second in command (and the only one other than Bobby who has his own office). Eugene’s storylines initially provide some of the show’s funniest moments. Good examples occur during his representation of a serial flasher. The flasher asserts that he exposed himself to protest NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Eugene quips, “In my experience, genitalia rarely collides with sunlight because of a US trade agreement.” Later on, the flasher gets arrest in a…hmmm… compromising position with a prostitute and a midget.

However, as the series moves forward, we’ll see various angles of Eugene. We’ll find that he takes the law seriously, practicing it almost like a religion, and we get to witness his intense struggle to reconcile his moral code and personal life with the demands of his profession. Further, Eugene never shies away from his identity as a black man — the pride of that identification as well as the tension it creates — which yields powerful stories and interesting group dynamics down the line. As a black male, I can easily relate to Eugene, but the real beauty of the character is that Eugene’s blackness fits within the context of a whole story and as one of many traits of a complete person, so he’s not simply written as “the black guy”. This is true of the other characters and their various traits. In this way, the Eugene Young character exhibits realism and nuance, and manages, through Steve Harris’ clever acting, to teach us all a little something about being human.

For instance, in “First Degree”, Eugene represents a police officer seeking compensation from the police force because he claims the job itself not only encourages but breeds racism, an interesting parallel to the show’s underlying theme that the legal profession fosters moral conflicts. Racism, he claims, is his job-related disability, and he wants to be compensated. Eugene is gung-ho about the case, believing that his client’s claim could widen the scope for spotlighting corruption within the police department. Secretary Rebecca, also black, is not quite so enthusiastic. In his zeal to do right, Eugene learns that he’s actually doing his client a disservice, first by personalizing the issues, and then by using his client’s case to further a personal agenda in a way that failed to advance his client’s objectives. He thought he was looking at “the big picture”, but that’s what we all think until we realize that the picture only looks “big” because we’ve been looking at things through a microscope.

My, my, my, what a different show the original Law & Order would have been — and probably for the better — with a regular appearance of an attorney like Eugene Young. Often, Law & Order‘s defense attorneys are either pushovers (they just sit there and let their clients get badgered into confessions!) or morally crummy leeches who “pervert the law”. They aren’t complicated, and they act as mere window dressing for Law & Order‘s “ripped from the headlines” story structure.

2. Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams), a graduate of Harvard Law, could have her pick of any firm in Boston, Massachusetts. Instead, she chose to work in the trenches with Bobby, sacrificing her budding reputation as a “constitutional hotshot” to defend drug dealers. Lindsay’s constitutional analysis is so sharp, she’d never put up with the blatant and routine violations you see on most cop and lawyer shows of the US Constitution’s Fourth (unlawful search and seizure), Fifth (incorporation of the Miranda rights) and Sixth (right to counsel) Amendments.

Lindsay is new to Boston’s legal circuit, so naturally she’s timid and unsure of herself. At the outset of Volume One, she’s earning her stripes through her representation of Emerson Ray, a widower bringing a wrongful death suit against a tobacco company for his wife’s death after years of smoking cigarettes. Opposing counsel in the case is none other than Anderson Pearson (played by the always awesome Edward Hermann, now easily recognizable as “Richard Gilmore” of Gilmore Girls fame). Pearson, whose successful and opulent firm of a thousand lawyers offers a captivating foil to the squalor of Donnell & Associates, was one of Lindsay’s law professors, one she admired immensely. “Small world,” she remarks, positively giddy at crossing Pearson’s path. “Yeah,” answers a sardonic Emerson Ray, “It’s puny.”

Camryn Manheim (as Ellenor Frutt)

3. Ellenor Frutt (Camryn Manheim, catch her on Ghost Whisperer now) is something of a mystery. I don’t remember her back-story ever being incorporated into the show, but here’s what we know for sure: she’s resilient and tough, yet she’s insecure about succeeding as a lawyer, since she’s not a Harvard grad like Lindsay, and she’s self-conscious about her looks. She’s not a “conventionally” pretty woman, not skinny or slender or any of the other things we see on America’s Next Top Model or generally in fashion magazines.

And so, she tries dating through the personals to take advantage of the anonymity, and she endures insults about her weight (“Why don’t you go get a pizza, Jumbo!”) from the firm’s most obnoxious and dastardly client, Joey Heric (played by John Larroquette, who used to play sleazy playboy prosecutor Dan Fielding on the sitcom Night Court). Truth is, Ellenor Frutt isn’t ugly at all, but when she lets herself be dictated by what she believes people think of her, it’s the results that aren’t pretty.

4. James “Jimmy” Berluti (Michael Badalucco) greets us as a non-practicing attorney working as a banker. He’s been Bobby’s friend for many years. Strapped for cash, Bobby approaches Jimmy for a bank loan, and Jimmy engineers a crafty, but illegal, way to make it happen. Unfortunately, the kindhearted ploy gets Jimmy tossed from his job, after which Bobby hires Jimmy to work at Donnell & Associates as yet another lawyer in a firm with more money troubles than a season of Good Times.

Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), like Ellenor and Lindsay, initially lacks confidence in his legal acumen, but his strength is that he’s an “everyman”, a regular red-blooded northern Joe who likes his hotdogs and his Yankees. He’s not your typical slick-talking lawyer type either, more like a cuddly teddy bear, and he’s relatable because he exudes sympathy and pathos, even when he’s arguably in the wrong (i.e., doing something illegal, cooking up an objectionable legal strategy).

In his first jury trial, Jimmy represents a man who was fired from his job as a movie critic because his boss says he “looks like a monkey”. When the jury returns a verdict in his client’s favor, Jimmy is so excited, he celebrates his victory in open court, “I won! I won! We won. We both won!” and he recaps later with the others at their favorite pub. Who could blame him? There’s a lot of Cheers, the sitcom, in Jimmy Berluti and his heavy Bostonian accent, especially the “Norm” and “Cliff” characters, and Badalucco’s work as Berluti gives the show a distinct Boston flavor.

There are two really great prosecutors, too. One is “Susan Alexander”, played by Kate Burton. You’ll recognize her as Meredith Grey’s mama — great surgeon, but tough mother — on Grey’s Anatomy, and she’s always fabulous on The Practice. The other is “Helen Gamble” (Lara Flynn Boyle), Lindsay’s law school crony who is as crafty as Bobby, as ambitious as Bobby, and every bit as skilled and scrappy as any defense attorney. According to Kelley in the special feature, Lara Flynn Boyle originally auditioned for the role of “Ally McBeal”. My, oh my, how different that show would have been with Boyle as the lead. One episode near the end of season two (which we’re not getting in this so-called “Collector’s Edition”) merged The Practice with Ally McBeal, and it was hilarious to see the reactions of the characters to each other. Helen Gamble’s reaction to Calista Flockhart’s Ally McBeal is worth the price of a DVD all by itself.

Charge: Meager Packaging with Intent to Distribute

Much of what I’ve told you is for context but, as I’ve indicated, not all of it appears in this DVD set. You must know that although The Practice: Volume One is touted as a “Collector’s Edition”, it’s not worthy of the title. Volume One, consisting of four discs, includes the six episodes from the show’s first season, along with seven episodes from the second season. That’s a little weak for a Collector’s Edition. Even without giving us all 28 of the second season’s episodes, we should’ve gotten more than 13. Granted, the cutoff point is something of a mini-cliffhanger, so I respect the choice, but the package ends right when you’re really starting to get into the characters and stories, as each episode builds on the previous ones. The series in general is quite good about this, as actions taken and choices made in the first two seasons will echo all the way to the series finale.

Then there’s the cardinal sin of DVD packaging — there are no goodies! There aren’t any episode commentaries from Kelley or the cast, no alternate endings, no deleted scenes, no alternate endings, no photo albums, no bloopers — hell, not even a contest in which the winner will receive a trip to David E. Kelley’s production company to meet James Spader and William Shatner and hang out with the winner’s pick of honeys or hunks at Boston Legal‘s fictional firm of Crane, Poole, & Schmidt. Granted, maybe that last one was only on my wish list, but you get the idea.

The only “extra” you get is a lonely special feature called “Setting Up the Practice”. You get a montage of interviews with the cast, but aside from the cutesy title, it’s not terribly enlightening. It’s essentially an extended trailer that gives you “insight” you would have ferreted out on your own by simply watching the episodes.

This puts me in the uncomfortable position of hailing The Practice as the greatest legal drama of all time — uh, yeah, I was serious about that — while acknowledging that this long-awaited DVD doesn’t do the show justice and also that Season One and the beginning of Season Two don’t even contain the show’s best work.

Motion to Call The Practice the “Best of Legal Drama Ever”

Now, why is The Practice the best? You might figure it’s because The Practice delves into the nooks and crannies of the legal profession as, true to its title, it details and highlights the bare bones practice of the law. Other shows make drama out of unveiling the “real killer” (like the Scooby Doo-ness of Perry Mason or Matlock) or provoking witnesses into a confession (like Jack Nicholson’s famous “You! Can’t! Handle the truth!” explosion in A Few Good Men). The Practice makes drama out of trying to get a continuance, attending a hearing, strategizing with clients, holding a deposition, and maneuvering to keep the business afloat. Kelley’s nuts-and-bolts approach is cool as hell, too, and quite refreshing in contrast to the general US television fare that’s been saturated with lawyers who are smug (“Shark”), hardboiled (peep Glen Close’s Patty Hewes of FX’s Damages), and rich (L.A. Law). Still, none of that explains why The Practice rocks so hard, so guess again.

Lisa Gay Hamilton

You could argue that The Practice‘s greatness emanates from its application of legal theory, particularly the ethical side of the law, and how its episodes confront questions of morality, either through a character’s direct actions or through the moral implications of inaction. Non-lawyers harbor an image of the legal profession as being populated by crafty, coldhearted cutthroats who wheel-and-deal amongst each other, turn black letter law into semantic word games, and would sell out their own mothers if it meant winning a case. As a lawyer, and a proud member of my state’s bar, I have to say I take exception to that characterization — it leaves out “spoiled” and “vindictive”.

Since The Practice hit our screens in the aftermath of the OJ Simpson trial, when opinions about lawyers and the legal system were feverish, the show operated as a referendum on the legal profession in general and on defense attorneys in particular. Donnell & Associates could have been loosely based on OJ’s “Dream Team”. What the show makes clear, though, is that moral relativity is everywhere, in the medical profession (a doctor who dupes a patient so he can perform an unauthorized C-Section to save an unborn child); in religion (a rabbi counsels a grieving father that it is “more moral” for his daughter’s killer to be dead than to “go free”; the killer’s priest advocated forgiveness); and in parenting (perhaps marriage is actually a good idea for a 19-year-old and his pregnant 14-year-old girlfriend, who knew). The show also demonstrates that there’s a difference between ethics outside the legal system and ethics within the law, a distinction so shaded and puzzling it leads many lawyers to divorce, depression, and dependence on drugs or alcohol and leaves non-lawyers scratching their heads about what in the world makes attorneys tick.

Did you know that US law schools regularly use The Practice as a teaching tool and a lead-in to discussion in their Professional Responsibility classes? Some professors use it as a midterm or final exam prompt, “Write a paper on the ethical violations you see in the episode”. That’s because The Practice does an excellent job of dramatizing scenarios from the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, the lawyer’s code of conduct adopted in whole or in part by individual states and state bars. These scenarios add texture and tension to The Practice‘s caseload of traffic tickets, murder trials, drug crimes, serial flashers, lawsuits against tobacco companies, wrongful termination suits for “looking like a monkey”, and tort actions involving little girls bitten and scarred by Rottweilers. A few of the potential moral wrinkles presented in Volume One are:

1. Anderson Pearson uses his status as Lindsay Dole’s former law professor to give his firm an edge in the litigation. Is it ethical to use a personal relationship to further a professional interest? Does it matter if he’s genuinely concerned for her career if he’s also distracting her from the case when he suggests that Bobby Donnell’s firm isn’t the right fit for someone of her talent?

2. Bobby Donnell develops romantic feelings for his client. Okay, it’s kind of clear-cut that this shouldn’t be happening.

3. Bobby and Jimmy illegally secure a loan from Jimmy’s bank. Same as number two.

4. Did Bobby Donnell essentially argue for jury nullification (telling the jury to disregard the law) in the Gerald Braun murder trial when he asserted that Braun was morally justified in killing Ronald Martin, the victim? Does it matter that Martin was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity after admittedly strangling Braun’s daughter? Does it matter that Braun’s moral justification is based on the advice of Braun’s rabbi who told him it would be morally justifiable for Martin to be dead?

5. The Prosecutor’s Office hires a gifted prosecutor, district attorney “Asher Silverman” (Norman Lloyd), who also happens to be a rabbi. In addition to being a phenomenal lawyer, Silverman has the knowledge to rebut any arguments Bobby and his client might base on Judaism in the Braun trial. Should race, religion, ethnicity, or gender become part of the trial strategy?

6. Eugene Young and lovely prosecutor “Renee Williams” (Michelle Hurd) make wagers on the outcomes of the cases they try against each other. Pete Rose would have advised them not to do this.

7. Lawyers sometimes take cases involving clients who hold repugnant beliefs or desire goals that the lawyer finds personally distasteful. Great example: in the “Search & Seizure” episode, a man wants the court to force his wife to have a C-Section to ensure the safety of their unborn child. Should a lawyer refuse to represent such a client on principle or should the lawyer relish his or role as an advocate? Does it matter if there are no other lawyers willing to take an unpopular client’s case?

8. A prosecutor coerces a prostitute for testimony that Jimmy Berluti illegally solicited her services. The coercion? He’ll tell her pimp that she snitched on him, a threat he can make good on and, if carried out, would likely get her killed. The prosecutor’s motivation? He has a vendetta against Bobby from a previous case. “If I’ve gotta squeeze a Jane to make a John, I’ve got no problem with it,” he says. Ethical?

Kelli Williams (as Lindsay Dole)

9. Lindsay Dole’s friend, “Chris Kelton” (Steven Eckholdt), also a prosecutor, slips G.H.B. — a.k.a. “Liquid X”, the “date rape drug” — into her wine without her knowledge. He then makes his move on her while she’s hazy and less sexually inhibited. Disgusting behavior, methinks, and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers should have heard about it.

There are many more examples, but even this isn’t the reason why The Practice kicks so much legal ass. Here it is. It’s Kelley’s presentation of his characters that does the trick for me. It’s his willingness to let the flaws of his characters have equal time with their good qualities, delicately and painstakingly calibrated between being thoroughly “good” and altruistic versus being utterly corrupt and self-interested. The characters are passionate and motivated, but also nervous and self-doubting, which makes them all the more brave when the situation calls for courage, or tender when the situation calls for compassion.

As I said, non-practioners have the impression that lawyers are asses — and, for the most part, we are — but The Practice doesn’t try to hide that fact or disguise it as righteous indignation. Sam Waterston’s “Jack McCoy” on Law & Order does this a lot and it drives me crazy. Love Sam Waterston, can’t stand “Jack”.

The insufferable asses on other shows try to explain away their deficiencies — for example, the prosecutor who gets his or her hands dirty rationalizing the sleaziness as an attempt to “catch the bad guy” or “send a strong message to other would-be criminals”. Give me a break. That prosecutor is looking for a win, not get that warm and fuzzy feeling from making the streets that much safer. They’re not fooling anybody.

On The Practice, lawyers — and judges, for that matter — don’t couch their shortcomings in terms of their goals. You see, it’s not that the “ends justify the means”, it’s that the “means” justify the “means”. The love of the game and the rush of adrenaline propel these people as much as the desire to correct an injustice or the ideal of making the world a better place.

Closing Statement

And so, this show proudly puts the whole world on trial and, in the process, it puts our adversarial legal system and all its players on display. It constantly challenges our understanding of why things are the way they are, makes us wonder if it’s possible for anyone to truly get “justice”, and directly illustrates how uniquely positioned the United States’ legal system is alongside our individual moral codes, and indirectly allows comparisons to other systems. We’ve seen people do “bad” things for “good” reasons, and “good” things for the “wrong” reasons, but The Practice offers us ambiguous actions with mixed motives, and forces us to locate ourselves in the fray.

That, my friends, is an accomplishment. And it’s the very thing that will keep you coming back for more when they finally release Volume Two.

RATING 7 / 10