Lawyers: Can't Live with Them or Without Them

RICHARD REEVES

February 02, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- President Clinton's vow to put together a Cabinet that looked like America has not quite worked out, at least by my calculations. With 14 lawyers in 17 Cabinet-level positions, that would work out to around 205 million lawyers in the general population.

That's a bit high, I think, though sometimes it seems that way. There are, in fact, more than 800,000 attorneys in the United States, including the president and his wife, who actually met each other in one of the great cathedrals of the profession, the library at Yale Law School.

That works out to about 320 lawyers for every 100,000 of the rest of us. That statistic is often compared with the ratio of lawyers in Japan, just 11 for every 100,000 Japanese.

The implication, of course, is that the reason Japan has prospered over these past few years is that there are fewer lawyers (and courts) to screw up everything. That also means it is almost impossible to get that last resort of an assembly-line worker or any other little guy in conflict with the high and mighty: a day in court. The Japanese often have to wait more than 10 years for a court date.

The death of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and the ritual political killing of attorney general-designate Zoe Baird made me reflect on these things. I remind myself that whatever pain and drain comes from having so many lawyers trying to drum up business and gum up the works, I am in what I am sure is a small minority of Americans who prefer having too many rather than too few of my countrymen and women at the bar.

Mr. Marshall's life was a great example of what lawyers and the law have meant to this country. His greatest achievements were not as a justice but as director-general of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, arguing many of the great cases in American history, including Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, desegregating the schools of Topeka, Kansas -- and of the nation when the Supreme Court upheld that victory in Kansas.

Mr. Marshall represented one young Negro girl named Brown, against the laws and traditions and the power structure of almost the entire country. She got her day in court and changed the country.

It was a great day for individual freedom and for the American system of justice, a good fight that could not be won in the streets because Negroes were too few, and could not be won in the political arena. The political impotence of the minority in those days was demonstrated when confirmation of Mr. Marshall's appointment to the U.S. Circuit Court by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 was held up for almost two years by Southern senators.

Zoe Baird was on the other side -- not in that case or in any other particular case, but in spending her career representing large corporations interested in blocking citizen access to the courts. She was, in my mind, a bad choice for attorney general for that reason, rather than the fact that people were angry with her for hiring illegal aliens.

Ms. Baird is a woman of her times in the legal profession, but they were bad times as two presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, used their power to promote judges and attorneys inclined to crush individuals by challenging their right and standing to sue the bastards -- never letting them get near a courtroom or a jury.

Ms. Baird's principal job as an attorney for General Electric, honest and lucrative work, was to oppose and try to weaken ''whistle-blower'' legislation, the laws that give employees the standing to legally challenge thievery, fraud, health and safety hazards, and discrimination by their employers. As general counsel of Aetna insurance, her role was to try to limit consumer power to sue corporations.

Yes, there are too many lawyers in the United States. There are too many nuisance suits and malpractice and liability cases. Part of the reason is that law degrees became the union card of the class of baby boomers or yuppies who were dazzled by the salaries big firms were willing to pay for young energy to find legal ways and financial tricks to take over the assets of old companies and their pension plans.

The 1980s were a hateful time for millions of people, including some of the lawyers taking their cut of America's purloined pies. Perhaps that is why you so rarely meet lawyers who are happy in their work.

Just one of those things, I guess. Lawyers. You can't live with them, but you can't be free without them.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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