Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lawyers - Why We Need Them

A few months ago, AddeRabbi asked what benefit lawyers give to society. Why do we need them? It seems you can't go anywhere without seeing their influence, from warning labels on cigarettes to buying a home to signing up for a new credit cards, the lawyer is inescapable. Have you ever been to a courthouse? Worked at one? I did, last summer. Let me tell you, its an experience. Not a day passed without a car accident case where the injured party had "soft tissue injuries" and just enough range of motion loss to bring the case (Allstate insurance has stopped settling these cases and instead brings them to trial, knowing that in the short term it is more expensive, but will stop frivolous claims. Though I have no hard data, Allstate appears to win most of these cases, and some personal injury lawyers no longer take Allstate cases).

Second you have lawyers, thick as flies, the same ones day in and out (on a recent visit to the judge I worked for last summer a number of the flies said hello and asked where I've been, whether I was working or still a student), who just hang around the courthouse running from case to case, a half dozen per day.

Truth is, and this may shock you, lawyers are tightly regulated. Conviction of a felony results in automatic disbarment. Not only that - get disbarred in one state and other states may follow suit automatically. Unlike doctors, who can lose a medical license in one state only to kill patients in another, lawyers have no such recourse. And pity the lawyer who lies to his clients, or even misleads, as to why the disbarment occured. Want to get re-admitted? Fat chance.

Yet lawyers still have a bad name. It doesn't help that many politicians are lawyers, or that lawyers defend child molesters, rapists and murderers. Not to mention the odd lawyer who absconds with escrow money belonging to the client. And the ones that take out ads on TV, you know, in case 25 years ago you didn' get the exact doctor you wanted for your child's birth. A great sight which chronicles these types of cases is - take a visit.

So why keep them around?

The truth is we need lawyers because *we* don't trust each other. I don't trust you to keep your word, so I hire a lawyer to make sure the contract is iron-clad. John is selling his house to Mike, and tells Mike that the heating system works perfectly. Comes winter and the system doesn't work at all. John denies ever telling Mike it worked. Mike should have checked it out. So? Lawyers. Contracts. Red tape. Court. Don't believe me? Next time you buy a house or sign a contract, tell the other side you've decided to get rid of the lawyers. No legalese no nothing. Just a handshake. And, if you have any disputes, any problems, you'll sit down over a cup of coffee and figure it out. Heck, you'll even sign an agreement stating it. Think you'll
get anywhere? Why not?

Its not an indictment. American law (and to an extent halacha as well) has an adversarial system. With both sides advocating their view points, (after all, can I really know what's in your best interest, the tradeoffs you're willing to make? competing with each other, the judge/jury can figure out what really happend, at least in theory. Everyone looks out for their own best
interest, presents their own story, and the truth emerges.

Lawyers make an easy target. There are so many of them. I'm only suing John Q. but lawyers are everywhere. If I lose the case, my lawyer wasn't good (stupid lawyers). If I win and don't recover enough, same thing. But if I win, that means my opponent lost. He hates his lawyer for being stupid and he hates my lawyer for lying to win, since my opponent has every confidence in his story. You'll always have an upset party, and invariably lawyers they'll be upset with. We won't even get into contingency fee actions, where the attorney shells out thousands (or more) of dollars on the off chance that his client might win and thus be able to reimburse him.

That's not to say the system is perfect, far from it. But the bad lawyers get all the publicity. They're our scapegoats. But lawyers are the oil that lets society run. They cut across every area, help negotiate every dispute. Lawyers are the go betweens, the negotiators, the people who understand what obligations you have to your fellow man and why.

That's why we need them. Think society is bad now? Get rid of the lawyers and judges (they're lawyers too) and we'll see how long you last.