Tempers are flaring on the 48th floor of Toronto's Commerce Court. A young lawyer at Fagen & Harrison LLP wants time off for Rosh Hashanah so he can enjoy a traditional brisket dinner with family. But his slave-driving senior partner isn't budging, accusing the suddenly pious associate of exploiting religion to slack off. After all, the young Sam Caponelli is only half Jewish and has been spotted gulping down milk with his cafeteria burgers, a kosher sacrilege.
"Will you cut it with the Jewish s--t," a peeved Mr. Caponelli blares. "I'm talking brisket, here!"
So much for the civility of buttoned-down Bay Street professionals. This is what a downtown law firm looks like on celluloid. The scene was actually being filmed Monday for an episode of Billable Hours, a new television series about the wacky world of -- wait for it -- Canadian corporate law.
With shows such as Boston Legal, The Practice, Law & Order and Ally McBeal garnering some of TV's most loyal audiences in recent years, entertainment studios are still eagerly mining the legal theme to win new eyeballs. Billable Hours is just the latest production to tap the law firm setting for its dramatic tension.
The show, as it happens, is itself the brainchild of would-be lawyer Adam Till, a screenwriter who spent 12 months articling at the real-life Toronto firm of Goodmans LLP before decamping to show business. The series, scheduled to air early in 2006, was also brought to life by two former Goodmans entertainment lawyers, executive producers Ivan Schneeberg and David Fortier, who left the firm in 2003 to pursue their stardust dreams with Temple Street Productions.
The situation comedy centres on the lives of three young associates, Sal (played by Fab Filippo), Clark Claxton III (Brandon Firla) and Robin Howland (Jennifer Baxter), who get up to crazy antics as a way to cope with 16-hour workdays and overbearing senior partners.
But while it often mocks a profession that has no dearth of enemies, Mr. Fortier, 34, and Mr. Schneeberg, 35, see it as an homage to a community that gave them entrée into the show business world.
At Goodmans, the pair were protégés of Michael Levine and David Zitzerman, two of the country's top entertainment lawyers, working mainly for big U.S. studios with stakes in Canadian productions. "These guys were superb lawyers," recalls Mr. Levine, who acts for Temple Street and was an early champion of Billable Hours.
But the entrepreneurial bug bit, and the pair left, eventually pitching their legal services and creative ambitions to Goodmans clients Patrick Whitley and Sheila Hockin, who ran Temple Street, creator of the popular Canadian series Queer as Folk.
"We knew absolutely nothing" about producing TV shows, Mr. Schneeberg says. Nevertheless, they managed to score with their first gamble, a teen show called Darcy's Wild Life, which was picked up by the U.S. Discovery Kids channel and eventually sold around the world.
All the while, Billable Hours was on the back burner. It was Mr. Levine, a fan of Mr. Till's writing, who'd begun selling them on the idea the day they left Goodmans. Originally an Ally McBeal-style "dramedy" called Big Law, the show was remodelled by Mr. Schneeberg and Mr. Fortier after the British hit sitcom The Office, which satirized the pathos of petty office politics inside a troubled stationery company.
Showcase in Canada liked the result and signed on for eight half-hour episodes.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Schneeberg and Mr. Fortier say Billable Hours is liberally, if loosely, based on their Goodmans experience. "All of our characters are inspired by one or more people we know," Mr. Schneeberg says.
The "Jewish holiday" episode is a case in point. In it, the Christian faction at the predominantly Jewish-WASP firm of Fagen & Harrison plot to win their fair share of golf time by launching a Judaism "conversion class" that enables cagey participants to observe the Jewish high holidays.
"Goodmans was originally known as a bit of a Jewish law firm and ultimately became quite a mixed law firm," Mr. Schneeberg says. "And there was a lot of fun tension between the Jews and the non-Jews, always jousting back and forth and having a good time."
The set, too, couldn't be more true to Bay Street. Sprawled over two floors of the Commerce Court tower, the wood-panelled space was until recently home to Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, one of the country's largest law firms, which is subletting it to Temple Street after moving into new quarters across the street.
Billable Hours enters a crowded genre, to be sure. Shows such as The Practice and Law & Order are just some of the more recent torchbearers in a tradition that extends back to L.A. Law in the 1980s and Perry Mason in the 1960s.
Why are law shows so popular?
"They make for really good stories," says Michael Asimow, professor of law emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Law and author of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies. "You always have suspense, at least in the trial context, because you don't know what the jury's going to do."
Lawyers also are conduits for many of the power struggles of modern life, whether in criminal or tort matters, mergers and acquisitions or family law. "All the big questions in our lives tend to be decided by courts and by lawyers," Prof. Asimow says. "People want to learn about what they do.
Not least, there's the prospect of well-dressed, ambitious young women and men working in close proximity late into the night to ratchet up the tension.
But where other legal shows revolve around the courtroom, Billable Hours -- the title refers to the tyranny of by-the-clock legal billing -- ventures into new terrain by pointing its lens on the bone-dry world of tax planning and insolvency restructuring.
That said, the plots aren't exactly written in fine print. "We don't deal with the law," says Mr. Fortier, adding that The Office, too, is more about practical jokes and racism than about paper making.
The pair are adamant, though, about getting certain details right. "It was very important to us in making this show that it be very true in look and feel and dialogue to the big-A-type corporate law environment," Mr. Schneeberg says.
Whether audiences will stay tuned is another matter. "Whether they can make that consistently entertaining, I really question," Prof. Asimow says. "What lawyers really do is stunningly boring almost all of the time."