Gov. Lamont's Disastrous Tax On Legal Services

            Gov. Ned Lamont lives in a bubble, and that bubble is impenetrable. I know this because he was once a potential juror on a criminal case I was trying in Stamford. The charge was attempted murder.

            Bottom line: The judge, prosecutor and I agreed that after listening to Mr. Lamont’s answers to questions about the presumption of innocence, we all concluded he was unfit to serve. You see, Mr. Ned – I think of him as the human version of Mr. Ed, Wilbur’s talking horse – just couldn’t seem to commit to following the law. He was so busy trying to show us what a smart guy he was, he talked himself into a corner.

            Think about that for a moment. Our governor was rejected for jury service because he could not make the necessary commitment to follow the law on a fundamental legal principle.

            If memory serves, this was just after he lost a race for the United States Senate.

            Mr. Ned’s governor now. But he still doesn’t understand the legal system.

            His first budget proposes an extension of the sales tax to legal services. He wants to tack on the 6.35 percent levy to help close the state’s yawning budget gap. Does he not know that this will make it even harder for ordinary people to afford lawyers?

            Mr. Ned lives in a bubble, I tell you. His wealth insulates him from the concerns of folks who stumble into law offices daily, desperate for help.

            The fact of the matter is that the middle class is dead and dying. It never recovered from the 2008 recession. The overwhelming majority of folks charged with a crime now rely on public defenders. On the civil side, harried court administrators will tell you that their dockets are clogged with people representing themselves, so-called pro-se litigants, because they can’t afford lawyers. Folks who need lawyers can’t afford them; lawyers who need clients can’t afford to work for what clients have to offer.

            So what will the net effect be of this new tax on legal services?

            Rates for services will increase by as much as 10 percent, thus making lawyers an impossible luxury for even more people. The lines in the courthouses will grow on the civil side. More people will need public defenders. Some lawyers will go out of business, those already hovering on the margins trying to make a dollar out of the 15 cents of misery potential clients can offer.

            I say 10 percent for the following reason.

            Add $63.50 – 6.35 percent -- to the $1,000 legal bill. Then add in time for the bookkeeper to keep track of the taxes, the office manager to make sure tax reports are filed, and the accountant to audit and prepare returns. What once cost $1,000, a pittance in legal fees, will now cost $1,100. That $10,000 fee to represent someone facing prison time will now be $11,000.

            Each and every day, my office gets calls from people in crisis looking for legal services. Many are candid. They know lawyers have a duty to perform a certain amount of pro bono – or free – work. “I would like to be your pro bono case” is a line someone must be teaching folks to say, I hear it so often.

            That’s not a very effective way to shop for a lawyer.

            I often respond by telling folks, “Well, I’d like you to be a paying case.”

            Then comes the interminable dickering. Folks want a payment plan. “Trust me,” they say. “I’ll make the payments.”

            Almost no one does. And only a heartless lawyer sues for an unpaid fee.

            Folks looking for a lawyer follow the Bar Closing Rule.

            At the end of the day, a person in crisis regards the lawyer, any lawyer, as the stranger sitting at the end of the bar at closing time. Desperation sets in. Rather than leave alone, the stranger is promised anything they ask for. But once morning dawns, and the stranger has served his purpose, they are left – often with broken promises on the pillow. A lawyer who trusts desperate strangers is either a fool or a saint. I am neither.

            We don’t do payment plans. If I’m your best bet in a crisis, then I expect you to ante up if the crisis is real. If you can’t, I can’t pay my employees, expenses, and myself with promises. It just doesn’t work that way.

            So Mr. Ned’s new tax just makes the market for legal services that much meaner. I’ll have to be even more careful deciding whose case to take and what terms are necessary for me to remain in business. I’ll be ten percent harder to reach for people who are already dangling on frayed lifelines.

            Lines in the courthouses will grow. More public defenders will be necessary. The state will have to add staff to handle the lines and cases. The money we bring in with new taxes today will result in more spending later.

            I know the punch line: What do you call five lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

            Answer: A good start.

            Lawyers are easy to hate. We are social oncologists, called upon to handle things when something goes wrong. We’re hated until we are needed, and when we’re needed we’re still hated, unless we make a client’s dreams – no matter how irrational the dreams – come true.

            Mr. Ned’s new tax will make things that much worse. Thank you, Mr. Ned.

            Query to the governor: Do you sing a little ditty when you stand daft in the morning’s mirror? You should. Think Wilbur. Think Mr. Ed. Think the theme song to that iconic show. “I am Mr. Ned.”

            You ought to. I’ll certainly be humming that tune when I contemplate your new tax and its effects on potential clients, and on my firm.


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