<EM>The Law Firm</EM> The Law Firm

Once upon a time, executive producer David E. Kelley pronounced reality TV "junk," and was understandably miffed that it was drawing eyeballs away from his shows like Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public and Boston Legal. But the onetime lawyer would like to retract that statement now that he's the big name behind The Law Firm (premiering Thursday at 9 pm/ET), NBC's contest in which real litigators compete for a $250,000 cash prize. How does Kelley explain his change of heart?

"Some reality television I quite like — the first one being American Idol — but most of the fare I felt disrespected the medium and... degraded its contestants," Kelley explains. "This particular series I don’t think will do either. It’s not a forum to exploit or ridicule the lawyers who are part of this franchise. It’s just the opposite."

In the show, a dozen lawyers are divided into teams and given real cases to try in front of judges. The clients come from all over the country, and the outcome of their televised arbitration is legally binding. Infamous trial attorney Roy Black (whose notorious clients include Rush Limbaugh and William Kennedy Smith) oversees their work and makes cuts each week, based on individual performance, not on whether they win or lose the case.

"When I was doing The Practice, my greatest fear was that someone was going to come along and tell [stories] with real clients, real lawyers and actually binding verdicts," Kelley admits. "As a scripted-television producer, I knew we couldn’t be as compelling as a series that had real cases."

The Law Firm's attorneys quickly proved that theory, and Kelley never once longed for a script to control the on-screen action. "It was thrilling to watch these people perform as lawyers. I'm a bit of a voyeur when it comes to watching lawyers and legal cases, so there was never a time where I was saying, ‘Wow, I wish we had an actor in that person’s place.'"

The admiration runs in the other direction, too. "I teach a course at the University of Miami law school, and I show some excerpts from The Practice because [the arguments] are so well done," says Black, who sees little difference between lawyers and screenwriters. "[In a trial] you have to be able to get [your] points across in an interesting and dramatic way. If it’s boring, people stop listening in the first few minutes and click you off like they do a TV show."

Interestingly, The Law Firm won't follow The Apprentice's formula and isn't giving the winner a job — which is actually a good thing, according to Black, since these natural show-offs will be fielding offers soon enough. "I think when other lawyers see [the contestants, they] will want to hire them or work with them. I’ve tried to hire two of them, and unfortunately the producers refused to allow me to do that until the show airs."