More than “Just Legal”

On Monday, Sept. 19, at 9 p.m., the WB will premiere “Just Legal.” Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the current home-run king of TV, this is no “C.S.I.” clone, but rather a one-hour drama with occasional comic moments that is about the beauty, the promise, the reality and the heartbreak that is the American legal system.

“Just Legal” stars Don Johnson as Grant H. Cooper, a demoralized attorney who operates out of a Venice office, a block from the circus-like boardwalk, and for whom the Santa Monica Courthouse is home base. Cooper is so down and out that he no longer argues cases, he just settles or pleads them out. Jay Baruchel (from “Million Dollar Baby”) plays David “Skip” Ross, an idealistic young prodigy — emphasis on the young — he graduated college at 14, law school at 17 and having passed the bar at 18, he’s now trying to get a job. No one will hire him, other than Cooper whom he meets while caddying for him in a golf game in which Cooper successfully hustles his opponent. Cooper promises to get Ross into court fast — handling trials and showing him the way the real world really works. Will Cooper dash Ross’ idealism? Will Ross manage to rekindle some of Cooper’s former passion for the law? Of such questions is the pilot made.

Part of the show’s appeal is the insights it offers into the law — as offered up by the show’s creator, Jonathan Shapiro, an attorney turned television writer (“The Practice,” “Boston Legal”). Perhaps there is some irony in lawyers leaving the practice of law to write TV — about lawyers (ex-attorney and veteran TV producer Rob Bragin is also on the writing staff) but in some ways, Shapiro’s intention is to portray both why people go into and why they consider leaving the law.

Like Shapiro, I, too, am a member of the NPLI (the nonpracticing law institute), and perhaps that’s why I find Shapiro’s story — both his personal one, and the one he is trying to tell in “Just Legal” — so persuasive.

Born in Woodland Hills, Shapiro’s father, Leonard, was a salesman for a furniture company and his mother, Deborah, was a bank teller — very hard-working people. They put their children’s education ahead of their own advancement and their children did not disappoint.

Shapiro attended Harvard College (where he performed in Hasty Pudding shows) and was accepted to UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School. But he deferred admission to spend a year at Oxford University.

Did I mention that Shapiro was a Rhodes Scholar? And that his sport was boxing? Holy Max Baer! While at Oxford, he saw that Frank Bruno had an upcoming bout in London. He couldn’t afford a ticket so he contacted The Ring magazine and asked if he could be a stringer. Bruno knocked his contender out of the ring and Shapiro got his first paid writing gig.

Shapiro continued to write for The Ring. At the same time, he became a stringer for UPI. He decided he wanted to become a writer and told his father he was going to skip law school and go to work for a newspaper.

His father said: “I’ve never asked you to do anything. I ask you to go to law school.” He also said the words that many Jewish fathers have told their children over the years, mine included: “Writing’s not a real job. You’ve got to have a profession. You can always fall back on the law.”

So he went to law school. Shapiro continued to write for The Ring, where he became its first-ever humor columnist, and for legal publications. At law school, Shapiro discovered a profound respect for the legal system: “The best part of democracy,” Shapiro says, “happens in a courtroom.”

Upon graduation, Shapiro became a federal prosecutor, working for the U.S. Justice Department, first in Washington, D.C., Superior Court and then as part of a Justice Department task force fighting organized crime, and then public corruption.

In Shapiro’s office on the Sony lot, there’s a framed letter from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno thanking him for helping prepare the Waco hearings.

Shapiro, by his own admission, “loved practicing law.” His years as a prosecutor “defined me as a person.”

He describes himself as unabashedly patriotic and as someone who very much enjoyed putting away the bad guys. Perhaps that part is genetic: As a bank teller, Shapiro’s mother was held up at gunpoint four times, and always provided accurate IDs of the robbers, then went to work the next day.

Shapiro became involved in California government as chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente in the Gray Davis administration. When Bustamante lost his bid for governor, Shapiro found himself, at 35, wondering what to do. He was, at the time, an adjunct professor of law at USC, and also worked occasionally as a judge pro-tem in Small Claims Court.

Shapiro decided that the time had come to try writing full time. His wife, successful comedy writer Betsy Borns (“All of Us,” “Roseanne,” “Friends”), encouraged him to write a sample TV script. (Betsy and I worked together at Interview Magazine in the Warhol era.) Shapiro wrote a spec “Practice” which got him a meeting with a producer on the show who asked him, “Did anything funny ever happen in court?” Shapiro related an anecdote about a judge who sentenced his charges based on their reaction to a very corny lecture he gave them. By the end of the meeting Shapiro had an assignment, and then a job on “The Practice,” which led to a being a producer on “Boston Legal.”

The inspiration for “Just Legal” was close to home. Despite Shapiro’s impressive academic resume, turns out that in his family, he was always considered “the slow one.” Shapiro had an older brother who was a prodigy, skipping grades, finishing law school at UCLA while still a teenager. However, upon graduation, his age worked against him — no major firm wanted to hire him. This is part of the inspiration for David “Skip” Ross.

At the same time, Shapiro based Don Johnson’s character on three lawyers he knew “at the end of their careers.”

“They were dump trucks,” Shapiro says. “They never took anything to trial. They were like the [old] guys at boxing gyms.”

Shapiro wanted to explore how they got that way. More than anything, he wanted to express “the idealism of the law versus the reality.”

“The law is perfect,” Shapiro said recently, “the problem is that [the practice of] of law is fundamentally heartbreaking.”

My own experience and opinion of the law, overall, is quite similar to Shapiro’s, if not as glamorous.

Although it would be easy to say that I only went to law school because of my parents — I was around 3 or 4 when my parents first told me I was going to be a lawyer — the truth is that I enjoyed law school. I found it intellectually challenging, I was surrounded by bright people, and I liked being in school.

The practice of law was another matter. I have discovered that in life, no matter what it is you do, after a few years you are in the business of doing it. That realization, and how you respond to it, determines your professional life, and to a great extent, the quality of your life.

Although I was at times gratified by doing right by my clients, I just did not find the practice of law satisfying. Granted, I was a single person in my 20s and many aspects of being an attorney that held no appeal then — a regular paycheck, being able to support a family, health care, support staff and the camaraderie of an office — all those I appreciate now and understand why my father desired them for me.

Moreover, there was a large gap between attorneys and the law as showcased in law school, and the ways in which the role of the attorney has evolved in recent years.

Once upon a time, lawyers were “counselors at law,” trusted advisers. Young attorneys joined law firms with dreams of being made partner in seven or eight years, and then being set for life. The law firms themselves were institutions meant to outlive their founders and each represented a particular culture. They conferred prestige and status and were gateways into a way of living: partners had clubs they lunched at and country clubs they belonged to and there were charities and public institutions they participated in. To a great extent, they felt protected from the economic vagaries their clients faced.

If it seems as if I am talking about the era when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, the practice of law seemed like a throwback to that time, even in my day. Attorneys looked down on investment bankers — they were the people not smart enough to get into law school.

Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s as leveraged buyouts started to take hold, things changed. Status went to the dealmakers, and suddenly, the lawyers were simply the guys doing the paperwork, cleaning up after the bankers. Suddenly, the best, the brightest and the greediest were heading to work at investment banks. The practice of law seemed dull and old fashioned.

Suddenly, attorneys at law firms started looking at their own deals — name partners were pushed aside, not everyone became partner (nonequity partners), and lawyers increasingly split off to form new firms, concerned with their present earnings and with no real eye to institution building.

Today, the business of law has evolved. In California, lawyers, particularly in the entertainment sector, work on a commission basis — once upon a time, and certainly in New York, the very idea of having a stake in the financial outcome of a client’s transaction would have appeared to be a conflict of interest. However, today, a lawyer receiving a percentage just means that he or she is even more your advocate.

One can argue that in California, lawyers, in general, and entertainment, new media and technology attorneys, in particular, have returned to being trusted advisers. These attorneys are not advising exclusively on legal matters as much as they are consigliere, partners in a career and a business. They have become part agent, part manager, part consultant, part strategic adviser without really having to have day-to-day responsibility for a business. At the same time, their own financial risk is spread out among their portfolio of clients. But, again, that speaks to the business of being a lawyer, and is something quite apart from the law itself.

For me, the farther I got away from the business of being a lawyer, the more I came to respect the legal system. The law gave me the opportunity to be a book author — and write about the Demjanjuk trial in Israel. Sitting in a courtroom for many long months gave me a great appreciation of the rule of law as the defining instrument of an open society.

To cite a few examples: Nelson Mandela, both a boxer and an attorney, is a great hero and a great role model, because he chose the rule of law to effect a peaceful revolution — even though he had been a victim of his country’s apartheid system. In this country, similarly, we honor Martin Luther King, for his nonviolent protest by which he both defied and used the legal system to transform civil rights in our time.

In the pilot of “Just Legal,” Ross says, “Every great cause in this country was fought by trial lawyers; every great injustice was fixed by them.”

Think about it.

In Israel, the Supreme Court has come to be regarded as the final arbiter of difficult social issues — and whether the world recognizes it or not, Israel’s willingness to enforce its law against its own people in recent days — even dragging settlers out of synagogues, should go into the history books as a signal event in the history of democracy in the Middle East, a modern Altalena. A standard we can only hope to see exercised one day in Palestine and other Middle Eastern nations.

So, just as “The West Wing” sought to remind us that people who work in government are there for altruistic and not cynical reasons,

Shapiro’s “Just Legal” strives to remind us what the law can be.

“Half the show is about the idealism of how a young lawyer starts his career,” Shapiro told me, “and the other half is about how an old lawyer recaptures his passion for the practice of law.” And it is about how the system works: “The inequities of rich versus poor, the power of the state — all these play out in the courtroom.”

“Just Legal” is also “about fathers and sons and about mentors who are the opposite of paternal figures.”

And “Just Legal” is also about Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Shapiro acknowledged that while writing the pilot he was reading the wonderful new translation of “Don Q” by Edith Grossman (Harper & Collins) and here, and there, it seeped in. The close viewer will find references to the steed Rocinante and the fair Dulcinea. However, the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are not so obvious as it appears. Although it is young Ross who begins as caddy, he is the one on a quest and most likely to tilt at windmills. At the same time, anyone who judges Grant Cooper a fool, will find him as wily as the Man of la Mancha. Imagine Don Q on the WB!

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., remarked: “The Life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.”

Based on the pilot, I can’t say whether “Just Legal” will become a hit. But I can say, that based on its ambition, I’ll be setting my Tivo on Season Pass and hoping it succeeds.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

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Copyright 2005 Tommywood