It seems as if legal care should be reformed, too

December 17, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

The elderly woman said her neighbors are driving her crazy. They have noisy parties, their kids throw junk in her yard and their dog barks at all hours of the night. When she complains, the neighbors are rude.

She calls the police but they are busy with more serious crime.

"So I went to a lawyer in my neighborhood and asked him if he could do something," she said. "But he told me that mostly he does real estate closings and wills and things like that. And that it was just a neighbor thing and it wouldn't be worth his bother, and besides, I couldn't afford it."

This woman is an example of one of the most serious social injustices in this country. She does not have a lawyer of her own. When she needs one, she has to go scrounge around.

Even if she found a lawyer to take her case, he probably wouldn't be top-drawer because she is a person of modest means and can't afford the best legal care.

It's clear that what this country needs is a massive overhaul of the legal system, leading to Comprehensive Legal Care for every American.

I'm surprised President Clinton, his wife and Congress haven't placed that as an entitlement high on their agenda to make us all happier.

Many millions of Americans have no legal care. Others have to depend on some neighborhood storefront lawyer, who is no match for some slickster from a big firm.

Every day, hundreds of thousands of Americans go into traffic courts and plead guilty, even when they are innocent. Why? Because they can't pay a lawyer to get them off the hook.

Others go to divorce courts and feel they got shafted because their lawyer was not zealous or clever enough.

It isn't that there aren't enough lawyers. We have more than 800,000 in this country. That's 150,000 more lawyers than physicians.

The problem is in the way the law industry operates.

Most of the brightest lawyers try to join big, established law firms, where they can represent corporations and individuals who have lots of money, so they can become wealthy themselves.

Let some bag lady walk into one of these plush firms and say she wants to sue someone for shoving her off a heated sidewalk grate. Why, she won't get past the reception desk.

Others specialize in real estate, zoning, taxation, estate planning, work for corporations, or concentrate on other specialties. That means they have no time to bother with someone who doesn't have real estate, a corporation, a big tax problem or an estate to plan.

Ask one of them to go to police court and represent you for punching out someone in a bar and they will turn up their noses.

The result is that the average mope gets no legal care or only that which might be second-rate.

Consider someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is said to have been one of the finest lawyers in the country when she was back in Arkansas with Governor Bill, and I don't doubt it. But did she represent some snaggle-toothed Ozarks Rufus in a dispute with neighbors over possession of stray pigs?

No, despite her social conscience and compassion for common folk, she was in an executive boardroom, showing corporate suits how to structure multimillion-dollar deals.

The same can be said for her husband, also a lawyer, and the many other lawyers in the Clinton inner circle, as well as the Congress. Few, if any, ever went to court to battle over child custody or possession of the car and stereo and dog.

The system demands change. We should have a system of National Legal Care that would assure all Americans a lifetime of the finest legal care. The lowliest purse snatcher should be assured of legal care equal to that of the wealthiest Wall Street swindler. And at reasonable prices. Or no price, for those who don't have money, or prefer spending their money on fun things.

This could be done by breaking up the big law firms and assigning lawyers to Legal Maintenance Organizations. Then, all Americans could have their choice of which LMO they want to belong to.

To cut down on waste, the government could establish a bureaucracy -- or require states to do it -- that would decide how much a lawyer could charge for any service and to reject needless meetings, phone calls, briefs, motions and other bill-padding practices.

They could also set limits on how much lawyers could earn a year and how much they could spend on ties and tasseled loafers.

The bureaucracy could also set other professional quotas, such as how many lawyers can specialize. That could force many lawyers who chase ambulances to instead settle family disputes over who inherits grandpa's three-flat.

How could this be financed? Through a variety of special taxes on yellow legal pads, expensive cigars, cuff links, health club memberships and other legal necessities. There could also be law school tuition taxes, graduation taxes, bar test taxes, and a ,, special tax on the income of any lawyer who works for a governmental agency, a higher tax on lawyers who run for public office, an even higher tax on those lawyers who win election and a 100 percent re-election tax. Let them live on their campaign boodle.

And who would administer this new, fair, Comprehensive Legal Care system?

The answer is obvious. A panel of impartial doctors.

I'm sure the Clintons would consider that only fair.

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