Miles attracts barbs directed at legal profession

December 05, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From his car phone comes the voice of the distinguished comic attorney, Stephen L. Miles, asking why I hate him.

"Steve, Steve, Steve," I tell him, "I don't hate you."

"Yes, you do," he says, "and I don't know why."

"No, I don't," I insist, nor do I entirely understand why my feelings should matter to him, except that I mention his name in the newspaper once a year or so in ways he considers disparaging and I consider fair comment.

The television advertising, for example.

Miles is one of the biggest advertising attorneys in the country. He insists -- rightfully -- that he is legally entitled to advertise, and I insist -- rightfully -- that I am legally entitled to criticize him for it.

Bad enough, advertising by lawyers has helped turn us into the most litigious country in history, encouraging neighbor to sue neighbor, frequently over frivolous charges that are either dropped for lack of grounds or settled out of court by individuals too frightened, or institutions too busy, to pursue the legal fight through long days in court. We're a nation trying to cash in on our problems, and lawyers who advertise encourage it in unhealthy ways.

But Miles goes a step further. His commercials have now become virtual parodies of legal commercials -- Oliver Wendell Holmes as seen by Madison Avenue -- and parodies of the legal system itself.

In one spot, we see what's meant to be the actual making of one of his commercials. Is this what reverence for the law is all about? Showing us how a Miles commercial is put together? In another, we hear awed voices saying, "There he is. It's him," as though some famous figure has entered the room.

And, of course, one has: It's Miles himself, famous for being famous. He's transcending his professional role -- that of the upholder of "mere" laws -- and conferring upon himself either: a) movie star status; or b) a comic parody of such status.

And speaking of comedy, that's where he opened himself to more criticism. Not just from me; I know a gang-tackle when I see one, and thus laid off hitting him when everybody else who saw Miles perform stand-up comedy a few months ago was piling on and saying that, for a comic, he makes a great attorney.

But, over Thanksgiving, in a column explicitly marked as "sarcasm," I included Miles on a list of things to be thankful for. It was a gentle note that his funniest lines are uttered in court, not in nightclubs.

Thus, the telephone call. Thus, Miles asking why I hate him. Thus, Miles pondering if my single remark could crush his law practice -- a practice grown so large that Miles has eight different office locations, a practice so large that he has spent nearly a million dollars a year advertising the benefits of the practice.

Steve, Steve, Steve.

Can we talk about lawyers for a moment?

Not about lawyers advertising, or about Stephen L. Miles advertising, but about lawyers, and public perception of these lawyers.

Take, for example, the 18th annual report of the state Attorney Grievance Commission, which came out last week and took away the breath of all who saw it.

In the past year, it notes, there were more than 2,000 formal complaints filed against lawyers here, claiming fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, lack of diligence or incompetence. Twenty attorneys were disbarred, which is almost double the previous year's figure, and 16 attorneys were suspended.

So far as I know, Stephen L. Miles is listed nowhere in such figures. This is not surprising. When I saw him practicing criminal law, some years back, he was a very sharp character: quick on his feet, bold, intelligent.

His problem is the thing reflected in the Attorney Grievance Commission report: Nobody's in love with lawyers. Check the report, or check the lawyer joke books, or that beer commercial where they send a bull out to chase after a couple of attorneys.

Bad taste? Absolutely. But lawyers have become our national whipping boys, and Miles -- through his commercials, his stand-up comedy, his smarmy joking about gays on a recent TV show, his own radio talk show (and his calls to other peoples' talk shows: Steve, Steve, how dare you go on the radio and invoke the Nazi Holocaust when bemoaning this city's loss of a football team?) -- makes himself a point man for all manner of generalized professional criticism.

Hate him? Nah. Miles' problem isn't that he's hateful. It's that he's made himself a comic figure in a profession that we once associated with dignity.

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