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Is THE PRACTICE in its last days?LOS ANGELES (AP) - David E. Kelley, one of television's most respected writer-producers, is known as a reserved man who tends to save his words for the page.

But the possibility that "The Practice" might come to what Kelley considers an unjust and untimely end on ABC has made him an outspoken advocate for his legal drama.

"I'm still very devoted to it," Kelley said. "What's frustrating is that I see such a future in it."

But does ABC?

The two-hour episode that airs 9 p.m. EDT Monday could be the season finale - or mark the end of a series that captured consecutive Emmys as best drama in 1998 and 1999.

For the rest of May sweeps, one of the intense ratings periods used to set ad rates, the series' time slot will be filled by specials (including one marking ABC's 50th anniversary).

"The Practice" has ended other seasons knowing its return was secure, but the network this year will say only that its 2003-04 schedule will be unveiled at a presentation for Madison Avenue on May 13.

Kelley can't help but find ABC responsible for what's happened to his longest-running series. His other successes include "Picket Fences,""Ally McBeal" and "Boston Public."

"The Practice" was evicted from its 10 p.m. Sunday home to Monday in January, when newcomer "Dragnet" took its place. The reason, ABC said, was to avoid grouping three new midseason dramas on one night. Instead, "The Practice" was to serve as linchpin for two of the shows.

The network, which suffered a sharp drop in ratings last season, has been fighting for traction. It managed to halt the slide but awaits a turnaround, trailing NBC and CBS and narrowly ahead of Fox in total viewers.

Kelley bristled at the move, and the outcome proved grim. "The Practice" tumbled in the ratings, especially against one of Fox's frisky reality series, "Joe Millionaire." Ranked among the top 25 shows when the season started, "The Practice" was No. 69 last week.

ABC newcomers "Veritas: The Quest" and "Miracles" foundered and were canceled.

Kelley is holding out hope his series will be renewed and returned to its Sunday slot, which he considered a good fit. It deserves that, said the lawyer-turned-writer who got his start on "L.A. Law."

"Creatively, I think we're having a very strong year. Most people would argue that it's better than the two seasons before," he said, a reference to critics who contend the show had lost its punch.

The actors shares Kelley's exasperation and passion.

All are eager to return, said Camryn Manheim, who plays a member of the scrappy Boston law firm headed by Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott). The ensemble cast features Michael Badalucco, Lara Flynn Boyle, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Steve Harris and Kelli Williams.

They've been lobbying for the show both here and abroad, where it's also seen.

"Dylan's been doing a lot of publicity, Lara has, I have," said Manheim. "I flew to New York. I spoke to Finland, to Australia, to anyone. We've been putting up a fight."

The loyalty to the series and to Kelley is easy to explain, she said.

"The issues, the topics, he tackles are current and important and provocative. ... I'm so proud of the work we get to do and the words we get to say."

"The Practice" has taken on issues including the death penalty, religion and the conduct of the courts and attorneys. For his work on it and his other series, Kelley received the Writers Guild of America's lifetime achievement honor, the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, in March.

Does Manheim harbor resentment toward ABC for the show's handling?

"I'm giving ABC the benefit of the doubt right now. ... If we get canceled because they moved us without consulting us, without talking with David, I will feel incredibly resentful."

Kelley said there is more he would like to do with "The Practice," especially now.

"We're in a very strange place in our country in terms of privacy laws that are now in jeopardy. Even freedom of speech, which has been so fundamental to who we are as a people, doesn't enjoy the same protection. A lot of these issues in our new, post-9-11 world are ripe for examination."

Kelley has crafted a season finale he would consider an honorable series' end, if it comes to that. Early in the episode, Bobby decides the leave the firm he built to strike out on his own.

That dovetails with the show's history. In the series pilot Bobby both loathed and admired the "big firm across the street," as Kelley put it, and remained ambivalent about his own growing law office. On the personal side, Bobby and wife Lindsay (Williams) are on the outs.

"Bobby started off this series alone and that's where he ends up at the end of season seven," Kelley said - ample closure if "The Practice" shuts its doors.

For viewers, maybe. But it's not so easy closer to home.

"I'm a little emotional," said Manheim, who sounded tearful as she was interviewed by phone shortly after filming wrapped Wednesday.

"Honestly, there's nowhere to go from here but down. Why would anyone want to leave this unbelievable thing we have?" she said. "There's no TV show I could be on that's better." BACK TO THE TOP