If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

David E. Kelley, the onetime Massachusetts lawyer who has won a raft of Emmys for his shows L.A. Law, Ally McBeal, The Practice and Picket Fences, has finally decided that it's time for him to move into reality TV -- and NBC is helping him round up contestants and cases.

NBC is looking for California-based lawyers and civil court cases for a new eight-episode as-yet-unnamed alternative series that will feature lawyers arbitrating and trying real court cases with judges and juries, resulting in outcomes that will be final, legal and binding. Note, though, that, like The People's Court or Judge Judy, the "outcomes" of these trials will be binding only because the parties to the case contracted ahead of time that they would be -- not because the result has any legal authority without the pretrial contract.

In addition to Kelley, a frequent basher of reality TV, other executive producers will be his associate Jonathan Pontell and reality veterans David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe (The Surreal Life, Blind Date).

For contestants, NBC and the producers desire "smart, outgoing and industrious" attorneys who are members of the California Bar in good standing, have trial experience and live in California. Anyone meeting these requirements and interested in appearing on the show (which offers a "large cash prize") may e-mail a picture and resume to nbclawseries@mail.com; send it to Oseola Productions, Inc., 5700 Wilshire Blvd., 6th Floor, LA, CA 90036; or download an application on the "contestants" page at www.nbc.com. We are curious whether Survivor: Borneo contestant Stacey Stillman is interested in trying for a second 15 minutes, especially considering how her first 15 minutes ended up....

Those interested in submitting a case for consideration can contact the show's case hotline at 1-866-408-1727, or send an e-mail to tvlawfirm@yahoo.com. Civil cases from all areas of the law will be considered, including but not limited to personal injury, property disputes, workplace disputes, discrimination, contract disputes, sexual harassment, fraud, medical malpractice, and family or inheritance disputes. (Our advice: send a case along ONLY if the potential TV exposure is more valuable to you than the amount you realistically have a chance to win, since the outcome will be more random than regular legal procedings.)

Litigants who are ultimately chosen will be represented either by the lawyers in this "TV law firm" or by a "distinguished guest attorney." We wonder what makes a guest attorney "distinguished." We also pity the litigant who ends up with an inexperienced litigastor going against such a guest attorney.

Most cases on the program will be tried in a courtroom setting, but some may be arbitrated in a less formal environment. How much less formal? We don't know. We just hope there isn't a coin flip involved.

The "TV law firm" will be led by a managing partner, who will decide which "legal eagle" will be "downsized" (or, perhaps, "outplaced") each week. "Distinguished" judges will be deciding cases, either with or without the aid of a jury, depending on the case. We also don't know what makes a judge "distinguished," but we think it means that Lance Ito won't appear.

According to NBC, cases will be resolved just as they would be in court, only in this forum they will be tried on primetime television by lawyers hoping to ultimately win a cash prize. We can't reconcile this statement with NBC's earlier statement to potential litigants that "some [cases] may be arbitrated in a less formal environment." Perhaps it means that the cases that are aired will get a full mock trial, but some cases might be selected that end up as backups and ultimately get informally arbitrated out of sight of the cameras.

The series is produced by Oseola Productions, Inc. and will be distributed by 20th Century Fox Television. It will compete directly with Fox's upcoming The Partner. In fact, the similarity of concepts might lead one to wonder if it is a Fox-styled "ripoff" of The Partner.

From our vantage point, we expect that the Fox show, even though announced two months earlier, is actually the copy. Why? Because, according to Hollywood Reporter, Kelley's show was first set up with CBS as the broadcast partner, but CBS then withdrew. Since we doubt CBS, which so far has steered clear of the "reality theft wars," would have chosen to get involved with a copycat project, we expect that either the two series were conceived independently (always a chance, however unlikely) or the true origins of the Fox series (which is produced by Rocket Science Laboratories, almost a Fox in-house reality production arm) were rumors of the planned David E. Kelley show.

For now, we're adding this to our list of Fox thefts, along with Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy, The Next Great Champ, Branson's Big Adventure, the untitled Rock Star clone, and who knows how much else from the reality-TV ring at Fox led by alternative/specials VP Mike "Loot 'N' Steal" Darnell.