What's the difference between a lawyer and an onion? When you chop up an onion, you cry.
There must be a million lawyer jokes like that one floating around out there, and no doubt we can expect to hear them all now that Vice President Dan Quayle has declared war on the lawyers.
Why do people hate lawyers while venerating doctors, preachers and other professionals? It's no great mystery: Lawyers have become the alter egos of people who, in a less civilized time, would have settled disputes as small as a quarrel over a property line by violence. People who hate one another tend to hate one another's lawyers as well -- never mind that the lawyers themselves might be the best of friends.
Mr. Quayle's complaint -- made in a speech to the American Bar Association convention in Atlanta last week -- was an old one: There simply are too many lawyers running around stirring up trouble. Statistically, he has a strong case. There is now one lawyer for every 356 people in the United States. That's three times higher than in England, from whence our legal system came, and 25 times higher than in Japan.
The vice president maintains this surfeit of lawyers -- of whom he and his wife are two -- are responsible for a $300 billion "self-inflicted competitive disadvantage" which America suffers in international trade. That's how much the price of American products have to be increased, he said, to pay for litigation.
In confronting the lawyers, needless to say, the vice president wasn't exactly taking on the shrinking violets of society. He hadn't even left the podium before he was challenged by the bar association's president, John J. Curtin Jr., who protested that it was simplistic to suggest that the problems with America's justice system could be blamed on too many lawyers. A somewhat chastened vice president returned to the podium to say that he didn't really share the view of Shakespeare's oft-quoted revolutionary-terrorist who said "first, let's kill all the lawyers," and suggested there was room for compromise on the proposed reforms laid out by the President's Council on Competitiveness, which Mr. Quayle heads.
And indeed there is. For starters, the American Bar Association, the vast majority of whose members rarely ever enter a courtroom, could stop carrying the water for that handful who do, the plaintiffs' trial lawyers -- those roving bounty-hunters out to pick the "deep pockets" of insurance companies in products-liability or malpractice suits.
The legal profession also might support a national standard for ,, products-liability lawsuits to replace the confusing state-by-state standard that presently exists. And certainly the bar should modify the scandalous contingent-fee system, which gives plaintiffs' lawyers at least 30 percent of monetary damages that come out of a lawsuit.
And the legal profession could abandon its monopolistic grip on every service that might be remotely called "legal." There are vast areas of boiler-plate law such as divorces, simple wills, deed examinations, lease agreements and the like that are already being performed by paralegals whose work is only scanned by lawyers.
And the profession could abandon its opposition to alternative dispute resolution -- the use of arbitration in settings which would be far more efficient and less costly than traditional judicial proceedings.
But if it's reasonable to expect compromise from the legal profession, what may we expect from the administration? Well, it's noteworthy that in his speech to the ABA, Mr. Quayle doesn't talk about legal services for the poor -- which the ABA wants to expand.
If the administration really wants a compromise, then for starters why can't it drop the obsessive, paranoid hatred of legal services that was demonstrated by President Reagan and his minister of "justice," Edwin Meese III.
Even if Mr. Quayle is right that we have an oversupply of lawyers, the fact remains that there are tens of thousands of people across this country who have unmet needs for legal services. These are not greedy people who yearn to bring multimillion dollar lawsuits against the big corporations for trivial injuries, mind you, but people with the most mundane legal needs, comparable, let's say, to a tooth that needs a crown, or eyes that need glasses -- people who are walking around with genuine pain, even though most of us can't see it, and pain which can be alleviated by just a few hours of service by a lawyer.
If we have too many lawyers making mischief, then let's put those same lawyers to work serving people in productive ways, handling the legal needs of people who lack the resources to hire expensive lawyers.
Isn't that a reasonable compromise, Mr. Vice President?
Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.