One of the reasons I refuse to have anything to do with the American Bar Association is the group’s patent sense of unreality. It belts outs standards, policy statements and awards that seek to define the norms of practicing lawyers. Even when it seeks to be daring it becomes merely droll: Its idea of a "rebel lawyer" is a lawyer eschewing wing-tipped shoes at a big firm. Screw the ABA, I say.
So the association’s call for lawyers to give more of their time to folks in need didn’t do much for me. The ABA finally woke up to the fact that the economy has been in a tailspin for the past four years, forcing many folks to their knees. Many people are in court without lawyers, pro se litigants, thus clogging an already jammed court docket with plenty of folks clueless not just about their rights, but about basic courtroom procedure.
The ABA wants lawyers to step into the fray and offer more pro bono service. That will help those in need, and move dockets.
That’s a fine sort of logic for a trust-fund baby. If you’re independently wealthy, then economics remains a dismal sort of science. Perhaps your portfolio has taken a hit, but the bills still get paid: Sort of like Mitt Romney preaching the virtues of thrift to those who can’t pay their bills.
I don’t know many trust-fund lawyers. In the courtrooms in which I appear, it is often hard to tell the lawyers from their clients. The bottom fell out of the economy years ago, and street lawyers talk about it all the time. There are real estate lawyers trolling the halls of criminal courts offering cheap fees to those accused of felonies. Anything for work.
I’ve seen otherwise good and decent firms dissolve and downsize in recent years, all a function of the fact that as the economy goes, so goes the ability of people to pay for legal services. Just last year, I laid off staff for the first time. It’s a time for belt-tightening for all.
Last week, I received my quotient of calls from folks offering to be my pro bono case. (Yes, they do make that offer.) They were all mostly well-intentioned. But, like clients, I have bills to pay, employees to compensate, and debts all my own. When you volunteer to be my free case what, exactly, are you offering me? The chance to work a few extra hours each day for nothing? An opportunity to fall into debt? A chance to lay off another employee?
I practice in a street-level firm. You come to me if you or a loved one have been charged with a crime, or if the police have beaten you senseless for no good reason, or if you’ve lost your job and you are desperate. Very few people in the midst of a sudden crisis have money to spare for a lawyer. Most homes are underwater. Credit has dried up. People have depleted their savings long ago as they try to ride out the latest economic storm. By the time folks get to their lawyer, there is typically little left but fear, its cousin anger, disappointment and raw need. So lawyers cobble together the fees they need from what their clients have to offer. The fees are almost never enough for the work required and demanded.
An angry caller left me a message Saturday night. She was upset that I would not take a case for her loved one. He’s been locked up. The FBI and others abused him. He’s a victim. He needs help. They have no money. My refusal to help makes me just another scum bag in her view. She is entitled to a lawyer, you see. She has a right to my time. So, too, do the folks who want a thousand and one services for the dollar they can afford to pay. No matter how irrational the hope, pay your lawyer a dollar but demand a million dollars in effort: it’s the way of the world. Refuse to take a client whose demands are unrealistic, and suddenly you, too, are part of the conspiracy to destroy them.
On the ABA’s fantasyland approach to lawyering, we’re supposed to step into every fray regardless of the financial consequences, the emotional or mental state of the client, or the impossibility of the demands. We’re the roving social workers in a society coming unglued, reason’s last and lonely guardians in a world gone mad.
I’ve got news for the ABA: street-level lawyers have been giving for years, and they continue to give. We risk our reputations and livelihood on payment plans we know will never be honored. We charge what we can when we know the work will far exceed the fee. We carry those whose loads are too heavy for them to bear and call it a day’s work.
The fact that the courts are clogged with more pro se cases than usual reflects an economy in which everyone is suffering. That includes lawyers. Everyone is trying to survive while awaiting the recovery that never seems to come. Rather than call upon lawyers to commit professional and economic suicide, the ABA should be asking different, and more difficult, questions: Do the courts over promise what they can deliver? Is justice served by permitting folks to file a claim without having an economic stake in the game themselves? Sometimes the law does not offer answers to life’s woes.
When everyone is a victim, the courts become little more than a gambling parlor. Don’t ask me to give away lotto tickets while depriving me of the ability to meet my own bottom line. I don’t need help from the ABA knowing that my role is helping people in need. My phones ring off the hook, thank you. What I need protection from are the blue-nosed boobies sitting on ABA committees and trying to imagine lives they’ve never led. It’s a jungle out here at the street level, boys and girls. Dump your trust funds and come hang a shingle with me. Let’s see how long it takes to wipe that supercilious smirk off your faces.