Thursday, December 27, 2018
The week between Christmas and New Year's always feels magical to me. It's like it doesn't count against time, and once Christmas zone is entered, it transports me without notation to the first of January. A lost week.
When I was in practice, though, it was anything but. I can't remember a week between these two points where I wasn't buried deep in writing memos and responses. It was not a time of renewal or relaxation. And as a single mom, it did nothing to help me feel good about being a mother. Hardly a time for balance or reconnection.
As a law professor, however, I now have this glorious downtime, and it gives me the opportunity to think about things. It is a privilege for which I am duly grateful. Since I've been writing here I've gravitated toward ethical issues, a real surprise since I had no special interest and do not teach in the area. Despite that, I have now developed a profound interest in ethics and look for those specific events in legal practice to share here.
Taking advantage of this extraordinary privilege of time off between Christmas and New Year's I am currently traveling to Reykjavik. I am not sure what came over me to visit the land of fire and ice during the time of year where there are only four hours of daylight, but I will try anything once. On my Uber ride to airport I told my driver I was a lawyer. He told me of his terrible experience he had with lawyers. He apologized at the end of the ride and said he hope he had not ruined my trip. He most certainly had not. He set me on fire.
Why is it that so many of the stories that everyday people have about lawyers is how bad they are? From our point of view we work very hard to not make that so, but when we poll the public, we only hear more bad lawyer jokes.
My driver's story was not catastrophic. He had been in a car accident; he was at a stop sign, another driver swerved across the line, she was avoiding a crash on her side of the road. He was not injured but his truck was totaled. His car was in the tow yard, waiting to be fixed, but his insurance would not pay, saying he was at fault. He was not at fault, but needed help to nudge the insurance company. He called many lawyers in town (many prominent names I won't mention here) and none of them would help him. The first question he was asked at each office he called, "Are you injured?" When he said no, they referred him on to someone else. Lawyers are also business people, and we understand exactly what was happening. His case was not worth much without a personal injury. Since that time he has told everyone he knows not to believe the ads on tv. Those lawyers will not get you $300,000 for your car accident. Unless you are in a wheelchair, don't bother calling for help.
My driver did find one young lawyer to help him with his claim. This lawyer knew the claim was not worth much, but for some reason had it in his heart to help. My driver, an older gentleman, told me how he cried when this one lawyer took the time to help him figure this out.
To me, this small assistance is what is gravely needed in legal practice. The cost of legal education is astronomical and does not lend itself to taking on small claims and modest clients. Many other things factor into the cost of legal service that drives the cost up for clients. In the meantime, so many people who need simple help get shuffled around and likely end up not being able to assert their claims.
As a profession we have lots of high level awareness of this problem, but in my estimation it is frequently superficial. We have mandatory pro bono, we have many legal clinics dedicated to the indigent, we have guaranteed representation for criminal clients. But we do not have an industry where everyday people can seek legal advice for a reasonable price. So many people who could benefit from legal counseling forego it because of the cost, or because they don't know how beneficial it would be for them. Simply to have their affairs in order is something everyone should be able to take advantage of.
Perhaps I am wrong in this assessment, but it has been my impression for a long time, and this impression was reaffirmed just today. I would like to hear from our wide variety of readers if as legal professionals we are on the right track, or whether it is time for us to reassess and maybe realign our practice models. After all, the new year is upon us, and this is the perfect time for New Year's resolutions.
Here's wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year. I hope we all find time to contemplate what matters and make concrete steps toward making life meaningful for ourselves, and for those around us.