A Defense of Lawyers

Lawyer bashing has always been around. It started with Shakespeare: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," says King Henry. But the anti-lawyer sentiments (including the lawyer jokes) seem to be especially vitriolic these days. Consider... * ABC recently devoted an entire hour of its prime-time schedule to a program called "The Trouble with Lawyers." * Business interests have started a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign to convince California voters to vote for Propositions 200, 201 and 202 on the March 27th ballot. A campaign spokesman is quoted in a press release as saying, "Ambulance chasing lawyers are the only ones who benefit from auto accident injuries."It would be fair to say that in the United States of America in 1996 lawyers are slightly less well-respected than streetwalkers. And mostly, lawyers have brought this state of affairs on themselves.Lawyering today is mostly a business, not a profession. The problem is especially bad at the large megafirms where the accumulation of billable hours has become one of the primary raisons d'etre of the enterprise. The adversarial system promotes hired guns sporting a win-at-all-cost mentality. Legal horror stories abound (like the lady who spilled hot coffee on her lap at McDonald's), without the corporate press releases telling us the whole story. Legal scholar Lincoln Caplan writes that "...lawyers fell from grace when devotion to a client's cause became the only thing that mattered." Plainly, there are too many lawyers. Yet those serving the unserved are few and far between. The statistics tell the story. Ninety percent of all lawyers represent 10 percent of the population. There is only one attorney for every 10,000 poor people. Only 1/2 of one percent of California's nearly 107,000 attorneys work for organizations representing indigent clients without charge. In fact, the only way a person of moderate means can gain access to the courthouse is if he or she has been injured and a contingency fee lawyer takes the case. If there is a contract dispute and the amount in question exceeds small claims limits, a working person may just be out of luck. Still, when a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or the American Broadcasting Company attacks my profession, it galls me. And the reason it galls me is that there are those among us who see the law as a higher calling, a noble profession capable of serving the public interest. In California alone, there is Peter Schey, fighting the good fight against Proposition 187. There is Dick Rothschild, Claire Pastore, and Melinda Bird at the Western Center Law and Poverty. There is environmental attorney Joel Reynolds at the Natural Resources Defense Council. There is Steve Nissen at Public Counsel, the largest pro-bono law firm in the United States. There is Abby Leibman at the Women's Law Center. There is Antonia Hernandez at MALDEF. There is civil rights attorney Dan Stormer. There is Bob Fellman, the executive director of the Children's Advocacy Institute and the Center for Public Interest Law. There is Fred Woocher and Michael Strumwasser, fighting the good fight defending Proposition 103 in court against the insurance industry. There is Harry Snyder, West Coast Regional Co-Director at Consumers' Union. There is Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the Southern California ACLU. And there are the countless unsung heroes at legal aid offices throughout the state.There are others, of course, all deserving our respect and admiration. If any one of the three ballot measures should pass on March 26th, some lawyers (especially those in the plaintiffs' bar) will only have themselves to blame. If that happens, for starters the organized bar would do well to revisit mandatory pro-bono for all lawyers and reasonable limits on TV and radio commercials by the personal injury mills.As for the public, education about the limits of litigation must be a priority. We as a society must understand that a lawsuit cannot possibly right every wrong, come-on lawyer ads notwithstanding. Other advanced societies do not engage in the orgy of litigation when something bad happens. Of course, those same societies do have social safety nets far superior to ours; and lowering the social safety net is just what Mr. Gingrich and his colleagues have in mind. My guess is that it is what the proponents of the March ballot initiatives also have in mind.


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