The Practice (1997–2004)
In 1995, Kelley entered into a five-year deal with 20th Century Fox Television to produce shows for both the ABC and FOX television networks, each agreeing to take two series. If one network passed on a project, the other got first refusal. Kelley retained full creative control. Ally McBeal on FOX and The Practice on ABC were the first two projects to come from this deal.
Premiering as a midseason replacement for the 1996-1997 season, The Practice was Kelley's chance to write another courtroom drama but one focusing on the less glamorous realities of a small law firm. The Practice would be the first of four successful series by Kelley that were set in Boston, proximal to his hometown of Belmont, Massachusetts. Receiving critical applause (along with two Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series) but low ratings in its starting seasons, it eventually became a popular top 10 program. The New York Times described the show as "the profoundly realistic, unending battle between soul-searching and ambition". Full-time writers on the first season of The Practice included David Shore, later the creator of House, Stephen Gaghan, a future Oscar winner for Traffic, Michael R. Perry, the creator of the 2011-12 series The River, and Ed Redlich, co-creator of the 2011-12 series Unforgettable. Later the writing staff would grow to 10, most with law degrees. By the fifth season, he would usually only edit the final script and was generally not on the set during filming.
In 2003, due to sagging ratings, ABC cut Kelley's budget in half for the eighth and final season. He responded by firing most of the cast and hiring James Spader for the role of Alan Shore, whom The New York Times described as "a lecherous, twisted antitrust lawyer with a breezy disregard for ethics." The final episodes of The Practice were focused on introducing the new characters from his next show, Boston Legal.