Monday, June 25, 2007

Why Killing All the Lawyers Isn't a Bad Idea

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
-- Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2
She was strikingly beautiful and had a great sense of humor. She was a hostess extraordinaire who had filled her New Jersey home with furnishings that she and her husband brought back from their world travels. But by the time she died, she was a virtual hostage of her alcohol- and drug-addicted son and his ex-convict girlfriend. The scene of fresh cut flowers had been replaced the stench of crack cocaine.
So began a commentary I wrote about what happens when lawyers can shake down their clients and play the system with little concern about being challenged by other lawyers, let alone sanctioned by the very institutions whose job it is to stop them.

* * * * *
There is no way around it: The legal profession in America is a disgrace.

There are too damned many lawyers, too damned many incompetent and corrupt lawyers and too damned few ways of weeding out the bad apples. Oh, and by the way, lawyers have conspired to make their services necessary, if not mandatory, in order to do practically everything these days except take a crap.

I speak from bitter experience. One of the three lawyers that I have engaged over the years was corrupt. One was a fee churner. One was a nice enough guy, but he never protected my interests.

Then there is the woman about whom I wrote. She has engaged (count 'em) six lawyers in two states over the last decade or so to deal with estate-, property- and crime-related matters. Two were corrupt, one was a double-dealer who conspired with his adversaries, two were fee churners and one was a nice enough guy, but he never protected her interests.

(A fee churner is a lawyer who further screws his client by inflating the amount of time he spends on a case. Fee churners will make a trip to the courthouse to pull legal documents for, say, three different cases and bill all three clients for the time. Lurking behind many a fee churner is a lifestyle that has outrun the lawyer’s ability to keep up with payments on his Mercedes, if you catch my drift.)

You might think that my woman acquaintance and I have simply had really bad luck. To the extent that there are indeed good lawyers somewhere out there, that would be correct. But the law of averages (pardon the pun) being what it is, you would think that even one or two of the nine lawyers that we engaged between us would have done their jobs.
This leads me to suggest that our experiences are sadly typical.
While no state is immune to bad lawyers, New Jersey may lead the pack.

There are about 68,000 members of the New Jersey Bar, and in 2006 1,429 new ethics violation complaints were filed against them with the Office of Attorney Ethics (OAE).

That works out to roughly one complaint for every 50 lawyers, which seems on the high side and is because there are instances when there are multiple complaints against the same lawyer.
But that actually is on the low side because the first line of defense against bad lawyers are other lawyers and the instances where lawyers rat out lawyers is extremely rare.

Add to that the fact that the OAE sets the bar extremely (there’s that word again) high for a complaint to go beyond the initial stage.
That helps explain why in 2006 the OAE "only" issued 16 disbarments. There also were 13 disbarments by consent, 39 suspensions, 15 censures, 24 reprimands and15 admonitions.

If you guessed that the leading cause of sanctions was misuse of clients' funds, you would be correct.

A lawyer has reached the big time when he can litigate in the class-action lawsuit universe.

Class-action suits
have become a favorite way of, for example, separating a manufacturer who has made a shoddy product from a potload of money, often without an admission of guilt or negligence. Most of the money is supposed to go to the people who were hurt or otherwise wronged, but that is not always the case.
When 440 people who had sustained heart damage from taking the diet drug combination fen-phen won a $200 million settlement, their lawyers defrauded them by keeping the bulk of the money.

And in several instances, the lawyers threatened to retaliate against their clients if they told anyone how much -- or in this case how little -- they had been paid.
Where are lawyers on all of this chicanery? If a recent survey on double billing, a variation on fee churning, is any indication, many of them are out in ethical left field.
According to the survey, about a third of all lawyers have billed clients for time that they did not work and nearly half of all lawyers don't have a problem with that although the American Bar Association has condemned the practice.
No wonder lawyers are held in the same low esteem as used-car salesmen and, yes, journalists.

I rest my case.

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