Lone lawyer takes on corporate behemoth in David E. Kelley's Goliath

Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath as a down-and-out lawyer with (from left) Nina Arianda, who stars as an ambulance- chasing lawyer, and Ever Carradine, who plays her client.
Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath as a down-and-out lawyer with (from left) Nina Arianda, who stars as an ambulance- chasing lawyer, and Ever Carradine, who plays her client.

After creating hit legal dramas such as Ally McBeal (1997-2002), The Practice (1997-2004) and Boston Legal (2004-2008), 10-time Emmy winner David E. Kelley swore off making another.

But the lawyer-turned-screenwriter changed his mind for Goliath, a show about big-money law firms that have turned the justice system into an uneven playing field, where "truth has no currency anymore", he says.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles last year, he observes that this show - which debuted in the United States last year and is available on Amazon Prime Video in Singapore - could not have worked on broadcast television, where there is no time to tell in-depth stories like it.

"When we were doing The Practice, one of the things that always gnawed at us was, 'Wouldn't it be great to really do an anatomy of a trial, be more myopic about the pieces of that trial and examine the corrosive effects that litigation can have on litigants?'" says the 61-yearold, who is married to actress Michelle Pfeiffer, 58. They have two children in their 20s.

 

Kelley's long-time collaborator Jonathan Shapiro, who worked with him on The Practice, says Goliath is the only show "about what law firms and 'big law' is like in the 21st century".

The story follows washed-up small-time lawyer Billy McBride - played by Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade, 1996), who picked up a Golden Globe in January for the role - as he fights a massive firm over a wrongful-death suit.

Corporate behemoths such as the one he takes on have transformed the legal system.

Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, says: "There are close to 30 law firms right now which can claim revenue of more than US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) a year.

"Meanwhile, the number of trials in this country has gone down 60 per cent since I became a lawyer.

"(Political scientist) Alexis De Tocqueville said jury trials are the most important democratic institution in the country and the number of jury trials has gone down to less than 1 per cent in the federal system.

"Nobody is talking about that. This is a show about law and corporate power and democracy in the 21st century and it raises the question: Can David beat Goliath? When we started out as lawyers, David could beat Goliath."

These days, though, litigators are no longer the "heroes" they were two decades ago and "the system is rigged" in favour of big firms with more resources and time to fight cases, says Kelley, who notes that "now, litigation is the slumming job in law firms".

"We always believed that law was the level playing field where, if someone was wronged, he could get his day in court and right that wrong. And that's just not true anymore. Law firms have become big corporate giants; cases never get to trial.

"What this series is about is one down-and-out lone warrior knowing that he hasn't got the resources to fight big law, yet clinging to this notion that, if he can just get in front of 12 other people, truth maybe has a chance."

Alison de Souza

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Lone lawyer takes on corporate behemoth'. Print Edition | Subscribe