Larry and Lois Talk Legal-Care Reform

July 05, 1994|By JOAN BECK

Chicago. -- Here is a television commercial you'll never see:

Lois is sitting on the couch watching TV. Larry wanders in holding a can of cola and asks perfunctorily, ''What are you looking at -- one of those new Harry and Louise commercials about health care?''

''No,'' says Lois. ''It's a news report about that fund Bill and Hillary Clinton are setting up so people can give them money to pay their legal bills.''

''I knew they had legal problems -- that Paula Jones thing and the Whitewater stuff, whatever that is,'' Larry says, settling down on the couch beside his wife.

''But why do they need help paying their lawyers? Doesn't the president make $200,000 a year? The Clintons get to live free in the White House and have all those fancy perks. They are both supposed to be sharp lawyers themselves. And Hillary's apparently a genius at making money on the commodities market.''

''But their net worth is only about $1.6 million,'' Lois points out. ''The news report says the legal costs could come to more than $2 million a year. The two lawyers they've hired -- Robert Bennett and David Kendall -- get paid hundreds of dollars an hour. And these cases could drag on and on.''

''How will the fund work?'' asks Larry.

''It's got an official name -- the Presidential Legal Expense Trust,'' Lois explains. ''Lloyd Cutler, the guy who's the White House special counsel, says it will all be proper and legal -- just friends of Bill's and Hillary's helping them out privately in a pinch. No one can give more than $1,000 a year. No corporations. No PACs. No labor unions. But people who run them or work for them can give money. And lobbyists can kick in.

''The fund even has some big-name trustees to make it sound good -- the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame, is a co-chairman.

''And get this: Bill and Hillary have each given their $1,000 already.''

''You know who else is worried about paying his legal bills?'' asks Larry. ''O. J. Simpson.''

''I thought he was so rich, with all those movies and commercials and sports commentary jobs on TV,'' Lois counters.

''Look at the lawyers he's hired, though. Not only Robert Shapiro, but also Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey. Those guys don't work cheap.''

''It scares me,'' Lois says with a frown. ''What if we ever get involved in a big legal case? How could we afford to pay the bills? We could lose everything we have.''

''Hey, not to worry,'' soothes Larry. ''I've never been in a hotel room alone with a woman who works for me. We've never gotten involved in tricky real-estate or banking deals. And I'm certainly not going to start beating up on you.''

''But what if the IRS messes us up?'' Lois frets. ''Or we get involved in a bad car accident that our insurance won't completely cover and our rates get raised so high it busts our budget? Or a delivery person trips over the dog and sues us? We could lose everything we have.''

''The rates I have to pay for legal liability insurance in my business are getting to be a real problem,'' Larry adds. ''I could still get wiped out financially by unfair charges that drag on and on through the courts or if I got socked with a big settlement.''

''We know lots of horror stories about legal costs,'' Lois reminds him. ''Remember that legal hassle your brother and his wife got into over custody of their kids when they got divorced and how it wiped out their savings? And that illustrator friend of ours whose legal costs were more than the settlement he got when his work was plagiarized?''

''At least two doctors in town have quit delivering babies because they can't afford the huge malpractice-insurance costs,'' points out Larry.

''You'd think that justice wouldn't be so expensive that millions of people couldn't afford it,'' muses Lois. ''Isn't justice something

this country is really supposed to provide for people?''

''There are a few legal clinics for the poor,'' suggests Larry. ''Some lawyers will take on a case and agree to be paid only a percentage of what they win. And in criminal cases, the court will appoint a public defender for those who can't afford their own lawyer.''

''Talk about a two-tier system,'' says Lois. ''The poor get a public defender, who's probably overworked and underpaid. The rich and the powerful get the Bennetts and the Shapiros.''

''Maybe we need legal-care reform,'' suggests Larry. ''Something like what Congress is talking about for health care, maybe caps on how much providers can charge and managed care and giving the poor the same access to help as everyone else.''

''Maybe Congress will look into it,'' responds Lois, ''now that the problem involves the White House, and the Clintons' efforts to get money for legal costs could interfere with campaign fund-raising. Some members of Congress have already kicked in to the kitty to pay lawyers for Dan Rostenkowski, so they can see the problem up close.''

''Don't count on it,'' says Larry, as he flips to another TV channel. ''Almost everyone in Congress is a lawyer.''

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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