"When we first started, it was just Bobby and me, and he was so wide-eyed, every case. And if was a murder case... God, the light coming out from his eyes... It didn't bother him a bit if the guy was probably guilty. He'd say 'Bec, we defend the guilty because ultimately it protects the innocent'. And now... he Law Procedural
hates it when they're innocent. It's too much pressure. That's why none of us last in this job. You can only bear it defending the guilty. And how long can anyone last doing that?"
— Rebecca Washington
by David E. Kelley
about the "sleazy" Boston
law firm of Donnell, Young, Dole & Fruttnote
, known for their high quotient of scummy clients and ethically questionable tactics. However, each of the characters at some point reveals having their ideals, with long speeches defending what they do and how they do it.
In its original form, it was a straight series of literate and intelligent courtroom dramas. Around the middle seasons, the show shifted substantially towards criminal drama, often featuring the now almost reputable firm being plagued by its dirtier former clients. In the last seasons, the show started focusing more on the characters' personal lives, both in and out of court (see One of Our Own
), and developing increasingly far-out plots with criminally insane clients rather than just sleazy ones, a move that did not prove popular with audience or critics.
This shift ended in a conclusive Retooling
in the last season. The network gave David E Kelley an ultimatum, either drastically reduce the cost of the series per episode or face cancellation. Kelley chose to fire most of the main cast, including the lead character, and replaced them with James Spader
as Alan Shore. What resulted was a partial return to form in the vein of the earlier seasons, albeit at the total expense of most of main characters (what happened to most of the departing members was never given an explanation
). Near the end of the final season, Kelley was given the choice of either continuing the show or developing a spin-off around the Alan Shore character. What resulted ultimately became a Poorly Disguised Pilot
for its Spinoff
, Boston Legal
- Accuse The Witness: Used several times. It even becomes something of a trademark of the titular firm, code-named "Plan B."
- During the Ally McBeal cross-over DYD&F employ this strategy against the woman's psychiatrist, unbeknownst to the lawyers at Cage & Fish. When Bobby goes up to give his closing the psychiatrist pulls out a gun and commits suicide. As it turns out, Donnell's assertions were actually correct and he did kill the client's husband.
- Ambiguous Situation: Frequently, as the show often doesn't reveal whether or not the defendant actually is guilty.
- Amoral Attorney: By the end, pretty much everyone does something unethical. The firm knowingly defends murderers.
- Alan Shore is an interesting inversion. While Alan does many immoral things (and he's particularly immoral in the Practice), he often does them for moral reasons. For example, he hides evidence (a knife) from the police in connection with a stabbing because the defendant (his client) is insane, and Alan would rather get him acquitted on all charges (the knife was the bulk of the case) and send him to a mental institution than risk the State psychologist finding him both sane and competent to stand trial.
- Anti-Hero: Alan, an Amoral Attorney who ends up gaining the moral high ground when he sues the practice after they (after benefiting from his skills, which bring in most of their business and keep them afloat) fire him and attempt to steal his clients.
- The Artifact: Rebecca was only a receptionist for the first two seasons, but after she became a lawyer, Lisa Gay Hamilton's spot in the credits still featured her answering a phone for two additional years. Even after it was updated (and featured her with the short haircut she adopted early in the second season, instead of the long hair she had during the first), the sound effect of a ringing phone accompanied her image until the end of the sixth season.
- Back for the Finale: Bobby Donnell
- Beleaguered Childhood Friend: To the point where it seemed like the featured client was one of these every week.
- Bland-Name Product: Zig-Zagged. Characters would occasionally be seen drinking out of what were obviously Coke or Diet Coke cans, but with the logo either obscured, covered or turned away from the camera.
- Broken Aesop: Deliberately Invoked, in one episode, Eugene defends a man for robbery but it's clear from the beginning that he assumed his client was guilty and simply poked holes in the prosecution until it fell apart, and didn't even bother to get his client's side of the story. At the end of the episode his client is acquitted, and it turns out he really was innocent. In a later episode Eugene gets an almost identical case, and having learned from the previous one, assumes his client's innocence and takes his side of the story, however, this client is not only guilty but a liar, and cheerfully admits it to him just before taking the stand. The guilty client also gets off. The two contradictory messages of "Don't assume your client is guilty" and "He almost certainly is guilty" fit the themes of the show pretty well- the system is broken, and there are no easy answers.
- Broken Pedestal: Bobby's mentor, legendary lawyer Raymond Oz, lost his mind and killed his wife at the end of his life
- Byronic Hero: Alan Shore
- Cassandra Truth: In one episode, Rebecca defends a black man who was arrested for drug possession. Although the client is a known drug dealer with a record, he claims he was stopped for no reason the police, and it turns out that the cop who arrested him is a notorious racist who's well known for randomly stopping and searching black people in poor neighborhoods. On the stand the racist cop says that the defendant walked up to him, handed over the drugs and confessed. The judge (for obvious reasons) doesn't believe him and throws out the case. At the end of the episode, it's revealed that he did walk up and confess-he knew the racist cop would search him and find the drugs, so he turned himself in, knowing that no one would believe it and he would be released.
- Chickification: Ellenor Frutt. A confident, ruthless badass who twice punched another woman in the face after being disrespected, turned into an absolute blubbering mess when confronted by a knife-wielding George Vogelman, especially when deprived of a weapon. Had it not been for the intervention of a nude Helen Gamble, she would have been killed.
- Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: It is never explained what happened to the majority of the cast members in the interim between seasons 7 & 8.
- Common Nonsense Jury: Juries have returned some absolutely ridiculous verdicts in this series.
- Convicted by Public Opinion: Happens to some of the acquitted defendants.
- Courtroom Antic
- Cowboy Cop: By the end of the series, the entire Boston police force seemed to be made of these.
- Cross Over: with Ally McBeal. The lawyers of DYD&F find Cage & Fish's liberal and crazy work ethic odd while Ally finds DYD&F dark, oppressive, scary and intimidating. They also did a Cross Over with Boston Public and another with the short-lived Gideons Crossing.
- Darker and Edgier: David E Kelley conceived the show as something of a rebuttal to L.A. Law, for which he wrote, and its romanticized treatment of the American legal system.
- Deconstruction: Most legal dramas focus either on prosecutors or, if they focus on defense attorneys, the client is always innocent, or at least righteous, and almost all the time, the good people go free and the bad people go to jail. In this show, as in reality; people are wrongly convicted, unrepentant criminals escape on a technicality, and sympathetic criminals rarely get special treatment.
- Depraved Homosexual: Joey Heric.
- Dramatic Pause: The time between the words "we find the defendant," and the actual verdict grew continually longer as the series progressed.
- Faux Yay: Inverted by recurring character Joey Heric. Joey is an openly gay narcissistic Serial Killer who enjoys unnerving female prosecutors by making sexual advances on them.
- Friendly Enemy: Prosecutor Helen Gamble. Not only does she date Bobby at one point (the relationship fails to survive its first real challenge, Bobby and Helen facing each other in court), but she and Lindsey eventually become roommates. One scene has her and Lindsey giggling, spraying each other with cream and generally having a lot of fun, when earlier that day they'd been on opposite sides of a murder case.
- Full-Frontal Assault: Helen Gamble fatally shoots George Vogelman while she is completely naked.
- Good Lawyers, Good Clients: Averted; many clients actually are guilty, while with others, it's never proven one way or the other. Very rarely does the firm actually represent the innocent (although often times the firm will make the distinction that while their clients are guilty they really don't deserve to go to prison). In one episode of note, Eugene defends a client without any consideration for his guilt or innocence, refuses to put him on the stand or to believe in him. The client gets acquitted, but snaps at Eugene because he refused to believe in his genuine innocence.
- Gender-Equal Ensemble: Averted until the very last season, which had three men and three women. Until then, the show had always had a majority female cast. It was the most extreme toward the end of the seventh season, in which only three of the ten credited cast members were men.
- Grey and Gray Morality
- Hello, Attorney!: Most of the characters, though Jimmy and Ellenor were notable aversions (and even they might qualify as Hollywood Ugly). Originally Bobby Donnell was going to be a heavy set, unattractive, sleazy lawyer type, but Dylan McDermott's audition changed David E Kelley's mind about who the character should be, so Bobby Donnell's original conception was split between Bobby and Jimmy.
- Hollywood Law: Creator David E. Kelley, despite himself being a lawyer, gets lots of details wrong (or perhaps discards them for dramatic purposes. Many examples exist, but particularly egregious is "Line of Duty", where Bobby Donnell learns from his prosecutor girlfriend that the police will be raiding a drug house-one which his drug dealer clients runs. So he warns the client to get out, but instead said drug dealer client decided to shoot it out with the police, and an officer is killed. After the police discover what he did, Bobby is charged with being an accessory before the fact. In his defense he argues that his legal duty to represent the client covered warning of an impending arrest. The judge agrees. Not even close. Though attorneys must zealously represent all clients, this has to stay within the bounds of the law. Unsurprisingly, warning a drug dealer he was about to be arrested isn't legal.
- Informed Ability: Alan's skills as an anti-trust lawyer, which are mentioned by almost every other character. Throughout the final season (and Boston Legal), he's seen practicing a variety of fields, but he is never shown practicing this field.
- Internalized Categorism: Since he was a child, Bobby has wanted to be a high-powered lawyer, like the kind at the practice his dad worked as a janitor. He also hates them with every fiber of his being. This roiling self-hatred is one of his several personal issues that regularly push him to breaking point.
- It's Personal
- Karma Houdini: Played straight and inverted almost constantly. If the firm is defending a psychopath, they'll almost always get him off; if it's clear someone is innocent, you can bet they're going to jail.
- Lie Detector: The show depicted polygraphs as almost 100% accurate, and regarded passing one as the gold standard for proof of innocence. One client who was able to fool the polygraph (something laughably easy in Real Life) was described as "one in a million". Nonetheless, like in reality, polygraph results were inadmissible in court. This of course begs the question why they are inadmissible if they are supposed to be so accurate.
- Law Procedural
- The Mentor: Lindsey acted as a mentor to a young lawyer named Claire in season 7. She disappeared for season 8.
- Mercy Kill: The crime being prosecuted in at least one episode. Another episode featured a man being prosecuted for inciting a mercy kill.
- Bobby himself turned off his mother's ventilator in order to end her suffering.
- Munchausen Syndrome: Amoral Attorney Hannah Rose helped a client to walk away with rape by pointing out the victim had been previously diagnosed with Munchhausen, despite the dubious nature of why the doctor who made that diagnosis decided to do it.
- Murder by Mistake: The firm once tried and failed to save a client from being executed for this kind of murder.
- Nicejob Breaking It Hero: In one episode Bobby defends a woman accused of murdering her husband, although she initially seems credible when she pleads her innocence, she's caught lying on the stand and starts to look very guilty. Bobby manages to enter a plea for second degree murder at the last second (literally just before the judge reads out the verdict), only to find out that the jury's verdict was not guilty.
- No Ending
- One of Our Own
- One Steve Limit: As in real life, a lot of forenames reoccur over the show. Within the main cast alone, there have been two men named Alan. There's also the near-homonyms of Helen and Ellenor, James/Jimmy and Jamie. Counting Boston Legal, there have also been two Claires in the title credits, although neither one lasted a full season.
- Only Law Firm in Town
- Pedophile Priest: This trope caused Bobby to turn his back on the Catholic faith.
- Perspective Flip: A legal drama told from the point of view of the sleazy defense firm.
- Phrase Catcher: "LUCY!"
- Poorly Disguised Pilot: The eighth season spends several episodes setting up the law firm and characters which will be the focus of its spinoff Boston Legal.
- Promotion to Opening Titles: A lot of people forget that Jimmy wasn't in the title credits until the fourth episode of the six-episode first season, when he actually joined the practice, and was a guest star before that. Lucy also got one midway through Season 3 after a stint as a guest, and Richard Bay got one in Season 5 after recurring in most of Season 4.
- Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "There's a head! There's a head in the bag!"
- Also done with a single word ("Mass. A. Chu. Setts.") by the judge in the firm's first capital case, which took them from Massachusetts to California.
- They reused the same judge and his propensity for emphasising Massachusetts in Boston Legal.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Judge Hiller delivers an absolutely scathing one to Bobby late in the fifth season after his attempts to secure reasonable doubt for a client become particularly underhanded. Even more effective because she delivers it in hushed, matter-of-fact tones, and ends by telling him that, whether he wins or loses the case, she wants him to go home that night and just hold his recently-born son.
- Recurring Character: Some of the firm's cases lasted several episodes — sometimes as much as two months in Real Life — so naturally the clients in those cases appeared in numerous episodes.
- The Reveal: The end-of-episode cutaway shot to George Vogelman in a nun's habit was a very effective shock to the audience, since we had been led to believe he was innocent up to that point. Which was just not so.
- Sassy Secretary: Rebecca, Lucy, Tara.
- Scary Black Man: Eugene could be very frightening, especially when in Tranquil Fury, and he wasn't above threatening people, he even beat up two of his own clients.
- Screaming Birth
- Serial Killer: A few, including the Poet, an unidentified murderer who provides a handy alternate suspect for the firm to pin a couple of the more brutal murders they defend on.
- Sexy Secretary: Lucy, Tara again. Perhaps Rebecca.
- Situational Sexuality: Invoked by a guard when Lindsey is briefly imprisoned, during her orientation the (female) guard recommends that she pick up a dental dam from the infirmary "in case you get involved with anyone, better safe than sorry".
- Slobs Versus Snobs: Downplayed, the Practice was a small, run-down office in a dingy area of Boston, while a number of their civil actions were against big, skyscraper-based law firms staffed with snooty Harvard educated lawyers. As well as this, a good chunk of the main characters had lower-class backgrounds (Eugene and Rebecca were inner-city blacks, Bobby and Jimmy were working class Catholics from immigrant families). They were not above playing up their image to the primarily working class Boston juries.
- Society Marches On: A 1997 episode finds Jimmy Berluti's mother coming out of the closet and asking her son to defend (albeit unsuccessfully) her right to marry another woman. If only she waited seven more years when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts...
- Spinoff: Boston Legal
- Start My Own: Lindsay initially did this at the beginning of the seventh season, working in the same building as the others and more than occasionally using their library and resources. Bobby leaves the firm at the end of the seventh season to start another firm, while Jimmy leaves near the end of the eighth to start his own after the fallout from the failed case against Alan.
- Straw Conservative: The show had a decidedly left-wing message, with Jimmy usually representing a token conservative viewpoint which would usually be proven wrong. Unlike most examples, he wasn't depicted as bigoted or malicious, in fact he was one of the most moral characters on the show, he was just old-fashioned and naive.
- A much straighter example would be prosecutors Kenneth Walsh and Richard Bay, although they had some sympathetic moments.
- Stupid Crooks: A huge number of clients were pretty dumb, lines such as "How can it be stealing if it's for someone else?" were commonplace
- Sympathetic Murderer: Some of the guilty clients fall into this trope.
- To Be Lawful or Good: One of the main conflicts of the show
- Twofer Token Minority: Rebecca.
- Underestimating Badassery: A lot of high-power and corporate law firms go into cases assuming they can push DYD&F around and easily steamroll them. They still assume it after high-profile wins over cigarette companies, gun manufacturers and the Federal government.
- Vigilante Execution: Perpetrated by a number of different clients.
- Villainous Crossdresser: One serial killer did his dirty work in a nun's habit.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Jamie, when she sees her first dead body.
- What the Hell, Hero?: These moments become increasingly common as the series goes on, and are the main contributing factor to the series' conclusion. The firm is dissolved, and the few remaining members enter different legal ranks in the hopes of rehabilitating the damage their What the Hell, Hero? moments have done to their reputations and their own sense of self-worth.
- Lindsay gets to deliver one to her law professor. Her professor represents corporate clients, including the tobacco company Lindsay filed suit against, and he continually pleads that Lindsay stop working for Bobby Donnell and his criminal law firm and come and work in his, more respectable, firm. After a case where Lindsay used under-handed tactics to force the professor to either make a deal or turn over incriminating documents on how the company markets tobacco to teenagers (which would be tantamount to making the plaintiff's case for them), the professor goes as far as to say that Lindsay is his biggest disappointment and proof that he failed as a professor. Lindsay then retorts that while she defends total scum, she does so honourably and never helps her clients to kill or hurt people. Conversely the professor represents a tobacco company, a industry that knowingly poisons and kills people, and helps them to do it successfully. Lindsay concludes that he is therefore a far worse attorney than she is.
- The whole group of main characters get one during the final season when they fire Alan (who had, up to that point, kept the whole operation afloat by being their main source of revenue) and sue him for multiple perceived instances of immoral and unethical behaviour (including posing as a flight attendant and accessing the office computers to get information). Alan's whole defense comes down to, "Yes, I am an Amoral Attorney and a scumbag, but I brought this practice most of its revenue, none of these lawyers are any more ethical than I am, and I just want my slice of the pie." The court agrees, and awards Alan $2.3 million, causing the dissolution of the practice in the final episodes.
- Worse, during the entire case Eugene insisted that Alan's lack of ethics disgraced the firm, that the firm had integrity. While that is partly true, in regards to non-criminal cases, the firm mainly gained its reputation defending known killers and being under-handed in doing so, suggesting that Eugene is delusional and that his beef with Alan is mostly personal.
- White Sheep: With the exception of his parents, Jimmy's family is mostly made up of pretty unpleasant people; he defends two separate cousins for discriminatory firings on two separate occasions.