When The Practice creator David E. Kelley acted as judge and jury last spring, firing much of the Emmy-winning drama's cast, it shocked Hollywood. But this took a personal toll on the veteran producer, who says he endured several sleepless nights struggling with his decision. "It was very tough on a human level," he says. "I was kinda wishing that the show had been cancelled, rather than have to do that."

Instead, faced with ABC's decision to cut the show's $6.5 million-an-episode budget by half, Kelley ultimately decided to ax many of the series' most popular stars, including Dylan McDermott and Lara Flynn Boyle. With the exception of McDermott — whose $300,000-per-episode fee proved too rich a deal for the newly cash-strapped series — Kelley kept the actors whose characters he felt had the most storyline potential going into the series' eighth season. The lucky survivors: Camryn Manheim, Steve Harris, Michael Badalucco and Jessica Capshaw.

Starting Sept. 28, Practice returns to its Sunday at 10 pm time slot, after a disastrous move to Mondays last season. In an attempt to infuse new life into the show, Kelley's added some high-profile names to the cast. Indie film vet James Spader plays an unscrupulous lawyer fired by his old firm for embezzlement, while Rona Mitra (The Life of David Gale) is an idealistic third-year law student. Sharon Stone guest stars in a three-episode arc as Spader's client, who later joins forces with the firm. Chris O'Donnell plays against type for three episodes, as a husband on trial for killing his pregnant wife.

Oh yeah, and McDermott is also contracted to return for four episodes, likely either as co-counselor or a firm foe on a case. Though don't expect to see his handsome mug anytime soon. "I don't want to come out of the blocks reminding the audience of what we no longer have," says Kelley. "I think it's important we get the new Practice on its feet [first]."

So will the bold casting shake-up result in rejuvenated ratings for the aging drama? "I don't know," Kelley says with a laugh. "We're going to need all the luck we can get."