Follow TV Tropes


Series / Family Law

Go To

An American legal drama starring Kathleen Quinlan as a divorce lawyer starting her own law firm after her husband left her and their law practice. The show also has ambulance chaser Rex Weller (Christopher McDonald) and her best friend (Julie Warner), the only one of her original staff to not leave her after her husband's departure.

The show also stared Dixie Carter, Cristian de la Fuente, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Michelle Horn, and David Dorfman.

The show ran for three seasons from 1999-2002.


Tropes for the series:

  • Aborted Arc: The show's cancellation at the end of the third season cut short several subplots from Joe and Viveca expecting a child to Rex and Lynn keeping up a fake marriage.
    • A first season episode hinted Patricia might be trying to get into law school herself but nothing ever came of it.
  • Abusive Parents: Sadly, a common occurrence for the firm, either physically or emotionally.
  • Amoral Attorney: Played with Rex. At times, he's downright boastful on how he's an Ambulance Chaser who will do anything to win a case and represent slimeballs. However, he does show some surprising depth and a few times turns down a client because they're too repugnant for him. He also shows a surprising heart when he does the occasional pro bono job, including helping out a young boy wanting to stay with the foster family who can't afford his special needs.
    • Sadly, the firm often goes up against several of these in court, some of whom work for the D.A.'s office.
  • And Starring: The first season credits ended with "and Julie Warner." Starting in season two, it shifted to "with Julie Warner and Tony Danza." After Warner left in the third season, it changed to "with Dixie Carter and Tony Danza."
  • Bait-and-Switch:
    • Randi is with an elderly man who's railing on how a company wants to fire "Mr. Pickles," their spokesman, citing that "he's getting too old." The man rants on how "you think you can just hire some new youngster to do this" and the fan mail Mr. Pickles gets. At which point, up pops the actual Mr. Pickles...a nine-year-old dog.
  • Advertisement:
  • Child by Rape: Lynn is rocked to find a baby abandoned at the firm. When the mother is arrested, she openly tells Lynn she gave the child up "because I hate him." When Randi takes on the case, she realizes the child is the product of the woman being raped a year earlier. She decided not to file charges...which means the father (who claims to have changed) can claim full custody of the baby, kicking off an ugly court case.
  • Compulsive Liar: Randi dates a veteran judge who finds himself in hot water when a background check reveals that not only did he never graduate law school but he never attended college. The man defends himself on having clerked for a judge and passed the bar exam, then spread the story of being a Harvard grad for business. At first, Randi is okay defending him on that...until she's told that the guy has lied about almost everything in his background from military service to a non-existent overseas job. Even when presented evidence, he insists he won a medal in the Korean War despite having never set foot in the country.
    • Randi is able to point out to the ethics committee that, while lying about his own life, the judge has never been anything less than honest when on the bench so they allow him to retire with some dignity. As they bid farewell, the judge reveals that he's also been lying about his first name with Randi only able to laugh.
  • Courtroom Episode:
    • When Rex has to appear before an appellate court for the first time, he quickly realizes that his grandstanding antics don't play well before a panel of judges who are only interested in the real facts of a case.
    • Joe's antics, from arguing with judges to pulling shady moves, not only have him often in contempt but get the firm in hot water with lawsuits, forcing their malpractice insurance rates up. Dani refuses a chance to be a partner as she's seriously concerned she could lose everything if the firm were shut down over some legal actions.
  • Demoted to Extra: Played with Patricia. She was just a minor character in the pilot as the only member of the firm to stick with Lynn (as she was too new to be asked to join her husband's new spot). By the third episode, Merrilee Mc Commas was in the opening credits and a few more scenes. Yet for the most part, throughout the show's run, Patricia would often be completely absent in some episodes while others have her popping in for just a single scene to give Lynn some information or just say someone is on the phone for her.
  • Didn't Think This Through: To prove how illegal the "mass marriages" of a preacher are, Rex and Lynn go through with one themselves. While that does win them the case, they now face the issue that if they try to have it immediately annulled, the bar association might determine what they did was fraud and have them both disbarred. There's also Emily pointing out that once Lynn's ex-husband finds out she's married, he'll have cause to cut off her much-needed alimony payments.
  • Documentary Episode: Season three's "Arlene's Choice."
  • Domestic Abuse: Quite a lot of the firm's cases involve couples involved with this.
    • The second episode has Randi stunning Lynn by matter-of-factly revealing she went to jail for killing her husband. Randi details the man had been hitting her for years and she finally stabbed him when he attacked her with a bat. She earned a law degree inside and had the case overturned on self-defense and now takes any domestic abuse of other women quite seriously.
  • Early Installment Weirdness
    • The first season has a focus on the firm taking on quirky cases out of a David E. Kelley series. While lighter cases would stick around, the show soon shifted to more dramatic storylines.
    • The first episodes have Lynn commandeering the men's room as it was closer to the offices so for a bit, the women would be seen in a restroom with urinals, one of which had a potted plant in it.
    • Dani starts off tending to jump into near-hysterics at some bits but sobered into a more serious attorney.
    • Randi's introduction scene has her openly stating "I hate men" and shows that attitude for a while. It changes when she and Andres start an affair.
    • Patricia starts out as a scatter-brained klutz but quickly becomes a sharp and capable assistant.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Rex may openly take pride in being an ambulance-chasing shyster but even he has his limits when it comes to some truly greedy and scumbag clients.
  • Evil Lawyer Joke: Invoked in an episode where Randi is upset an apartment manager won't rent out to lawyers and sues him for discrimination. The judge openly says that, from her own experience, lawyers "brought it on ourselves" why people make so many jokes about them as she dismisses the case "so as not to add fuel to that belief."
  • Failed a Spot Check: When Viveca can't make it to court for an emergency case, Patrica poses as her for what she assumes is a simple arraignment. Viveca is outraged, warning Patricia they could both be put in jail for fraud but coaches her to keep up the act for a bit. When the judge talks of how he looked up "Viveca's" record and saw she's involved in several black activist groups, the women think the jig is up...only for the judge to congratulate "Viveca" on helping such causes even if she's not black herself. The women can't believe their luck the judge never looked up any photos of Viveca to take the win.
  • False Rape Accusation:
    • A few episodes have the opposing attorney using this as the defense against a woman suing an abusive man.
    • On at least one occasion, Lynn figures her client is being hit by this...only to realize it's true.
    • Lynn helps a teenage girl accusing her mother's boyfriend of molesting her, dedicated to stopping what she thinks is a monster. After her mother angrily dumps the guy, the teen smiles to Lynn "I knew you'd believe me," and Lynn realizes she made the whole thing up just because she didn't want her mother to remarry. While bound by attorney-client privilege not to reveal this, Lynn is able to prove it by pushing for the girl to have a physical examination "for the good of the case" which she refuses, thus making her mother realize she was lying (and when said physical is conducted, it proves she's still a virgin).
  • Foreshadowing: The opening scene of the series has Lynn complaining to Michael on how Patricia is well-meaning but also a klutz and even considering firing her. This ends up being why Patricia is the only member of the firm (save Dani) not brought along when Michael leaves.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • Dani is wary of becoming a partner as her father trusted a friend to join him in a business that failed and cost him everything and doesn't want the same thing to happen to her.
    • Lynn is surprised proudly liberal Joe doesn't want to help a gay man gain custody of an adoptive son as he feels it's better the boy be raised by the ex-partner and his new wife, openly saying "a mother is better." Lynn realizes Joe is affected by how his own mother died when he was a child and convinced only a woman can fill that parenting role.
  • Hidden Depths: Discussing how a pair of separated Siamese twins will be called "freaks," Rex goes on a rant about Christy Brown.
    Rex: Most people never considered this guy human. Then he picks up a piece of chalk with his toes and transforms the lives of God knows how many people. (sees everyone staring at him in disbelief) Yeah, I know, strangely incongruous sensitive moment from Rex. Deal with it.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Rex represents a greedy woman who wants her soon-to-be ex-husband from giving away millions of dollars for a foundation that sends daily food flights to Africa. The man defends himself on how he can't live with so much cash when so many are less fortunate which wins him the case. But when Rex checks the foundation out, he finds out it's being shut down and the manager surprised to learn they had $20 million. Finding the "humble" millionaire eating caviar by his pool, Rex relates how this was all a shell company scam to keep money from his wife. If Rex were to report this fraud, the guy goes to jail and his wife gets everything. The only way to prevent that is to register the charity with the IRS, let the foundation keep the $20 million, and continue the daily food flights...which will leave the millionaire broke in a year. Rex gets smug satisfaction with the man realizing his scheme to keep his wife from getting half his money is going to cost him all of it.
    • Randi and Dani are on opposite sides of a case of a couple whose bitter divorce has dragged for more than two years. A wrinkle comes up when a paternity test proves the husband is not the father of their son...and the wife isn't the mother. It turns out their son was Switched at Birth for another couple's. When the two families meet, the divorcing couple has yet another of their screaming fights which convinces the other couple that neither boy should be with them and sue for custody of both sons. Randi and Dani have to break it to the couple how they have spent two years (and several thousand dollars) doing nothing but accusing the other of being the worst parent possible. Now, every one of those reports is going to be used against both of them to cost them custody.
  • Hollywood Atheist:
    • In a case of a Christian husband and Orthodox Jewish wife fighting for custody, Dani makes it clear she can't understand why anyone has any faith at all given the horrors of the world.
    • Joe is quite open on refusing to accept the idea of any higher power following his mother's slow death by cancer. Ironically, his brother is a Catholic priest.
  • Hollywood Law: Inevitably occurs with multiple episodes showing bits that won't work in real life.
    • More than once, the lawyers will find themselves on opposite sides of a case despite the blatant conflict of interest. One episode tries to justify it was Randi is representing a husband in a divorce case against Dani representing the wife. The opening talk says Randi has known the man since before she joined the firm and both she and Dani have tried to hand the clients off to another lawyer but (thanks to the pair's non-stop bickering) no attorney wants to take them on.
  • Humiliation Conga: Lynn in the first ten minutes of the pilot. First, her husband wants a divorce out of the blue. Then, she shows up at work with Dani to discover the place has been cleaned out of furniture, files, and staff who are all joining her husband's new firm (save for Patricia). Then, she learns not only has he bought offices for it but stuck Lynn with the deed to this place. Then she learns he's put out the word she has "health issues" that convinced all their clients to sign with him. The cherry on the sundae is when Lynn's long-time loyal assistant drops by to reveal she too is going to the new firm...because she and Lynn's husband have been having an affair for a year.
  • Hypocrisy Nod:
    • When Joe floods the firm with pro bono clients and yells at the rest for being so greedy, Rex snaps "don't act high and mighty when you're walking around in a $4000 suit!" (Joe responds by stripping to his underwear on the spot).
    • Shaken by a client killed in a courtroom, Lynn enters a "just sex" relationship with ex-husband Michael. When Michael chastises her for using him like this, Lynn fires back he has no room to talk after he cheated on her with Lynn's own assistant and stole the firm out from under her.
    • Rex and Randi are outraged at Lynn hiring Joe on without talking to them, saying his bad reputation will hurt the firm's image. Lynn retorts by pointing out how Dani likewise thought Lynn was crazy for taking on a blatant Ambulance Chaser and a woman who went to jail for killing her husband and the only reason they're working here is no reputable firm would touch either of them.
    • Lynn worries she'll fall into this chastising her daughter for partying when Lynn smoked pot and got rather wild herself in her teenage years.
    • Likewise, Lynn is upset when her daughter is suspended for an editorial attacking the school cutting arts programs for a daycare center for teen moms. Her daughter fires back on how Lynn has always boasted of fighting and protesting things like the Vietnam War when she was a teenager and she's just fighting for what she believes in too.
    • Viveca insists she worked hard to get where she was and never traded on being black...but is forced to admit she has traded on her good looks for anything from swaying a jury to get out of a speeding ticket.
  • Injun Country: One episode has a divorced man taking his son to a Native American reservation with Lynn forced into a complex case clashing with the tribal lawyer.
  • Killed Off for Real: Naoise.
  • Locked Out of the Loop:
    • Invariably, a client will choose to conceal some key information which leaves the lawyers blindsided in court and puts the case in jeopardy.
    • The opening of the show is how Lynn never saw Michael stealing the firm out from under her coming as he'd been secretly swaying both staff and clients to his side for months beforehand. Meanwhile, Dani and Patricia were both kept out (Dani being Lynn's best friend who would never have agreed to it and Patricia too new and inexperienced to bring along) so they were just as blindsided.
    • Joe has a bad habit of not telling a client that a good settlement offer is on the table as he thinks he can win more in the case. At least once, he ends up sued by a client angry they ended up with nothing because their lawyer was too prideful to accept anything but utter victory.
    • When her lover Andres is arrested by Immigration officers, Randi argues he's in the country legally on a green card. Needless to say, Randi is rocked to discover that Andres just happens to have been married for the last three years.
    • Sometimes, the lawyers will do this deliberately for Lynn so she can use Plausible Deniability if things go wrong.
  • Loophole Abuse: The gang is expert in using tricks to manage to eke out a win and get their client more than the opposing team bargained for.
    • A regular trick is to wait until literally the last minute to file a motion that's impossible to counter in time.
    • The firm's cleaning woman wants Randi to help her handle the hundreds of thousands of dollars she's gotten holding the money for a rich accountant. The bank manager breaks it to the woman the entire thing is a 419 Scam and the bank demands she return the money, despite her not knowing she was doing anything wrong. When the judge rules for the bank, the cleaning woman throws a fit in court, dumping out the change in her purse so the court can take that too. The judge assures her "no one wants what's in your purse" and brushes off the missing $40,000 as lost. Later that night, the woman comes to Dani to pay her debt with a nickel...which is actually worth $4000. It turns out the woman invested that $40,000 in rare coins...the very coins in the purse the judge ruled belong solely to her. Dani has to laugh at the brilliant fast one the woman pulled on the bank.
  • May–December Romance: Randi and Andres.
  • Mercy Kill: "The Quality of Mercy" has Lynn defending a man (Andy Griffith) whose cancer-ridden wife had been denied a chance to end her life so he smothered her himself. Lynn thinks she can argue the man was just following his wife's wishes to end her suffering...until she discovers he just happened to be having an affair and thus an extra motive for murder.
  • Mistaken for Racist:
    • The gang worry they'll fall into this when they hire Naoise in the third season premiere before an interview with Emily. When Emily hears this, she threatens a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination. The lawyers realize no jury is going to believe they had no idea Emily was a dwarf when they decided not to hire her sight unseen and, to avoid a hefty settlement, hire her on. What's notable is Emily's smug smile convincing the others she knew all this was going to happen and used it to get the job.
    • When dealing with a case involving a Native American tribe, Lynn is on eggshells worrying any line (such as "Indian giver") can just feed the opposition making her out to be prejudiced.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In the third season premiere, Joe is pushed by Lynn to take on more paying work rather than a pro bono case of a troubled mother fighting for custody of her two children. Joe passed the case off to a newbie attorney...who makes a terrible paperwork mistake that leads the woman to lose custody. To Joe's horror, the woman throws not only herself but her children off a roof rather than be separated, overwhelming Joe with guilt.
  • The Needs of the Many: Invoked in an episode where a surgeon put himself first on a donor transplant list over a man who was an alcoholic needing a new kidney. Joe is already upset before he finds out that the surgeon went to rehab for using amphetamines. However, when he learns that the surgeon is the only man in the area who can do a complex operation to save the lives of several sick children, Joe reluctantly sides with Lynn arguing the doctor deserves the kidney more than the other patient does.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Sadly, several of the firm's actions only end up hurting others down the road.
    • Rex works to get his schizophrenic brother declared legally competent and free of a mental ward. While looking better, the man soon goes off his meds and is so convinced a stranger is planning on hurting Rex that he throws the guy in front of a moving car, killing him.
      • And when Rex and Joe try to argue the man is obviously mentally incompetent, the D.A. is able to point out Rex just argued for his brother's mental health a few months prior.
    • To help an old friend, Lynn proves a well-meaning Senator has been cheating for his entire marriage with both women and hiding money, ruining his campaign. Joe dryly congratulates Lynn for "handing a Senate seat to someone who wants to ban teaching evolution."
    • Joe and Dani sue the Department of Children Services of Los Angeles for what they see as failing their duties to help abused kids. Not only does this turn the department against the firm (help they often need for some cases) but (as Lynn warned the pair), rather than simply reforms, the public outcry threatens to close DCFS down which would leave all these kids far worse off (not to mention scores of well-meaning people out of work).
  • Old Friend: Over half the episodes involve a friend of a firm member (usually Lynn) needing legal help that turns out to be far more complex than it seems.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: Played with as the firm generally handles family cases but can stretch for criminal matters (usually with Rex). But a few episodes have Lynn telling a client she's not the right attorney to handle a criminal or financial case.
    • Sometimes, Rex himself will need to reach to one of the lawyers as he's not as up to speed handling a case involving custody or family issues.
    • Lynn is trying to find something shady on a Senator and reaches to one of the man's friends. She's informed he can't talk because he's just joined the Senator's legal team. Lynn tells the others something is wrong because the guy is a patent attorney and has absolutely no business being on the legal team of a Senator...unless it's to make sure he can't divulge anything under confidentiality.
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • Rex will openly lampshade how bad things are when he's the one advocating a logical and ethical approach on a case over the others.
    • The death of a client in a courtroom drives Lynn to become harsher and more ruthless trying to win over business which concerns everyone.
  • Orgy of Evidence: The show has a few cases where the attorneys realize there's just too much evidence to make something look shady:
    • More than once, a client seemingly has an airtight alibi...but the team realizes that there's just so much going on for them from testimony to how they can account for every minute as no one can actually be able to account for everything on a given day.
    • A man is accused of trying to kill a dealer selling drugs to his daughter with the kid identifying a car matching his. Rex brings up how he was once shot at by a client and he, an intelligent, fast-on-his-feet lawyer, was so shaken that "if you'd asked ten minutes later who I was, I don't know if I could have answered." Yet, somehow, a stoned teenager, with a bullet in his leg had the presence of mind to note (on a dark night), the make, model, and license plate of the car driving off. Lynn quickly realizes that someone (such as the guy's daughter) must have been feeding him that info.
  • Put on a Bus:
    • Andres eventually leaves to help his mom in his home country.
    • Dani leaves in the third season premiere to raise her adoptive son.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The firm's third-season move from Century City to an office in Santa Monica was pushed by the rising costs of TV production in Los Angeles.
  • Rejected Apology:
    • Randi has been trying to reach out to her now-grown daughter to reconnect since leaving prison for killing her husband in self-defense. But as far as her daughter is concerned, Randi murdered her father and she refuses any contact. Even when she's dying, the daughter outright refuses to accept any blood from her mother, which leads to her own death and Randi heartbroken they never came to a resolution.
    • Lynn takes up the death penalty appeal of a man who was involved in a school shooting. She and the boy's mother go to the families of victims, hoping to get at least one to offer public forgiveness for what happened. It ends with slaps, literal spit in the face and soaked with a hose.
  • Reverse Psychology: How Viveca got hired. Lynn was intrigued by her promising resume but Rex said Viveca was clearly way too attractive to be that serious a lawyer and coasting on her looks. Outraged, Lynn offered Viveca the job on the spot, which she accepted. As soon as they both leave, Andres thanks Rex for getting this knockout as a co-worker as Rex smirks "that was even easier than I thought."
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Common for the firm to run into some, one sibling caring while the other is selfish and messes up a case.
    • Rex is a smooth, arrogant, often greedy attorney with a troubled mentally ill brother.
    • When Joe is injured in an explosion, the gang is surprised to meet the brother he never talked about. They're more surprised to learn the avowed atheist's brother is a Catholic priest.
  • Sports Dad: Rex is approached by a pack of parents who actually want him to sue the referee of their kids' soccer game for an offsides penalty. This leads to the kids hiring Dani to try to ban their parents from the games as they just want to have fun while their parents treat this as a life-or-death event. The bickering gets to Rex and Dani, who keep pulling shady moves to win, all culminating in the judge openly telling them both to knock it off and how the kids are showing more maturity than any of the grown-ups involved.
  • Straw Affiliation: Happens several times.
    • Dani is thrown that proudly liberal feminist Randi refuses to help on a case involving abortion. Randi replies that while she may respect a woman's right to choose, her deeply Christian background and being a mother herself means she can't support it personally.
    • Viveca makes it clear that while she's proud of being black, she doesn't agree with such things as affirmative action as she worked hard to get where she was without special breaks for her skin color.
    • Joe makes a habit of irritating the others by bringing up their hypocrisy on certain issues.
    • On the flip side, the proudly liberal Joe seems wary of defending a gay man trying to win custody from the ex-partner who's about to marry a woman.
    • Lynn openly calls out Joe on ignoring a client's bad stuff as "anyone who thumbs the nose at the system is great to you."
  • Stupid Crooks: A veteran thief client begs Rex to help his son out of a robbery arrest as the kid is so dumb "he'll never survive prison". Rex looks into the lobby to see the kid honestly believing he can stuff a ten-pound statue under his shirt with no one noticing. The kid is accused of robbing a liquor store with a paper bag "disguise" which he kept lifting up to suck on a helium ballon to "alter" his voice and fled in his own car with a vanity license plate which he had reported stolen from himself. Incredibly, Rex is able to get the kid an acquittal by successfully convincing the jury that there's no way anyone could actually be this stupid.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: A common bit as the firm will handle at least two (sometimes three) different cases a week. Often, the lawyers won't talk to each other about them or just mention them in passing before going back to their own case.
  • Wealthy Philanthropist: Exploited in one episode as Rex's client is Gold Digger divorcing her tech millionaire husband and seeking to take over his estate because he's giving all his money away to needy people around the world and she thinks this is wrong if not insane. Not surprisingly the court rules against her. Rex subsequently learns that the husband started charities to tie up his assets and gain sympathy in the divorce case and that once all that was done he planned to simply go on leading the high life.