The Life

January 8, 2010 6:02 PM

Big Law Gets Small Screen Treatment--Again

Posted by Brian Baxter

Big law is no stranger to the small screen.

Legal dramas such as L.A. Law and Ally McBeal have enjoyed critical and commercial success, while others (The Associates, anyone?) haven't fared so well. Now, a new ABC series created by a Loeb & Loeb alum tries to make its case for why TV viewers should care about law firm life.

The Deep End, created by David Hemingson, a former Loeb & Loeb associate, is scheduled to debut on ABC on January 21. The show follows the lives of five fictional associates and the partners they work for at large Los Angeles-based firm.

"Five of the nation's brightest legal minds are about to discover...," a voiceover intones in one of the show’s trailers. The clip then cuts to two female associate swapping blouses. Another trailer portrays some playful sexual hijinks among the newbie lawyers, as well as more serious moments.

Among the shows leading characters: a name partner at Sterling Huddle Oppenheim & Craft, played by a bald, bronzed Billy Zane. (As an aside, we’ve got to give kudos to our colleague Zach Lowe, who stunned us by noting the similarity between the firm’s name and that of Sagman Bennett Robbins Oppenheim & Taft--the fictional firm that employs one of Jerry Seinfeld’s romantic interests in a first-season episode of the comedian’s eponymous sitcom.)

While Hemingson was unavailable to comment for this story, Am Law Daily sibling publication Texas Lawyer caught up with him in October, when the program was filming in Dallas.

Hemingson, a Columbia Law School graduate, has worked as a producer and writer on Kitchen Confidential, a series based on chef Anthony Bourdain’s book that ran on Fox in 2005, and on the CBS hit comedy How I Met Your Mother. He told Texas Lawyer that The Deep End project will have the "emotional resonance of Grey's Anatomy, the Dior-cloaked backstabbing of The Devil Wears Prada, combined with the sun-drenched bed-hopping of Entourage."

Those hoping The Deep End will reflect Hemingson's experience at Loeb & Loeb will be disappointed: He told Texas Lawyer that the show wasn't based on his time at the firm, but a blend of the strong personalities he encountered during his legal career. (A Loeb & Loeb spokeswoman was unaware of the series.)

Given his comments in past interviews, it's clear Hemingson was inspired by his short stint as an entertainment lawyer.

"They were exciting, exhilarating times for me," Hemingson told The Hollywood Reporter in 2007, shortly after ABC greenlit the project. In the interview, he described his former colleagues as “a ragtag family of 25-year-olds in the dream capital of the world, finding and reinventing ourselves and dealing with the huge personalities of our clients and our bosses."

While Am Law 200 lawyers may enjoy watching TV legal dramas, some know firsthand the enormous differences between Hollywood and reality. Consider the experience of Weil, Gotshal & Manges complex litigation partner Lori Pines, who was once tailed by a Seventeen magazine writer keen to learn whether life as an associate intent on making partner at a large firm was anything like what Calista Flockhart's character experienced on Ally McBeal. The short answer: "No."

"[Being at Weil] certainly isn't like anything that I saw on TV," says Pines. "I tried to show her what working at a firm is really like."

TV shows focused on law firm life have traditionally been the domain of David Kelley, a former real estate associate at Boston firm Fine & Ambrogne, which dissolved in 1990. Kelley is the creator of L.A. Law, The Practice, Ally McBeal, and Boston Legal--all of which enjoyed good ratings and decent runs.

When it comes to legal dramas, though, Kelley's success is the exception. Howard Ellin, global transactions cochair at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, says there’s a reason why such shows don’t always work: "There are a limited number of original ideas."

Ellin isn't totally without credentials on the topic of what makes for good TV: his younger brother Doug is executive producer of HBO’s Entourage.

One writer that Howard Ellin does single out for praise is Rick Eid (that the former Skadden associate started with Ellin at the firm in the late 1980s might have something to do with it).

Eid's Hollywood credentials include serving as producer and writer on Law & Order for three years from 2005 to 2007. One episode Eid wrote involved a lawyer at a fictional firm who murders a junior associate threatening to destroy his partnership dreams.

"Law firms are a workplace environment that can serve as a platform to tell a story," says Eid, who made partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and worked as an investment banker before going on to produce several prime time legal dramas and comedic webisodes.

Having not read the script or saw the show, Eid didn't have any comment on The Deep End. But he says that based on his own experience, someone with a background in big law should have plenty of material to draw on: "Having worked and lived in that culture with the personalities, weird demands, frustrations, rage, and humiliations, it definitely helps in creating something and bringing it to life on screen."

We'll be tuning in January 21 to find out whether Hemingson succeeds, and we'll be sure to deliver our verdict.

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Oy Vey! In the words of the great Jim Mora, this show looks like Diddly Poo.

Oy vey, is right... and what's worse, our friends and family who never understood what we do for a living ("You go to court all the time, right??") will finally get a definitively INaccurate picture of what we do. Thank you, tv land, for perpetuating false stereotypes for the sake of entertaining the silly masses.

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