Don't do the crime if it can't net enough to pay the lawyers

July 15, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

We'll start with a joke.

Q: What do you call 15 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

A: A start.

Now for the slide show. Please turn to pages 30 and 31 of your July 11 issue of People, the magazine for the profoundly average.

You'll find a double-truck picture of Robert Shapiro, the urbane, debonair and yet oh-so-sensitive barrister heading the O. J. Simpson defense team.

We see Shapiro tastefully posed with wife Linell and their golden retriever Spike -- in the family pool. Behind them are the his-and-her nude sunbather bronzes that were his anniversary gift to her. I don't know what the dog got.

They're a giving family. People tells of Linell's last birthday in which the kids gave her a box of Cracker Jacks. The surprise inside was a diamond bracelet.

You're glad for the just-folks Shapiros, of course. I mean, gosh, who doesn't aspire to diamond-laced Cracker Jack boxes?

Maybe it's just me, but I started thinking about the poor unfortunates who helped make the diamonds possible (and also Shapiro's $2,000 Armani suits).

Shapiro bills his clients $650 an hour. That's right. You didn't miss the decimal point. There is no decimal point. According to some estimates, Shapiro could make $2 million on the Simpson case. The total bill could hit $10 million.

Maybe Simpson doesn't need all the high-priced lawyers. (I heard Steven L. Miles was available.) But it's Simpson's money, and it's his life on the line.

Bill Clinton's political life may be on the line. You may have forgotten Paula Jones in all the O. J. excitement, but the lawyers haven't forgotten. Clinton is being sued, and he can't afford a lawyer.

The president -- he's the guy with the pencils and the tin can -- is $2 million short, and he's asking you and me and everyone but Rush Limbaugh to help pay his legal fees. If that doesn't work, Hillary has agreed to hold a bake sale.

I started wondering again. What if it's poor, no-defense-fund me on the wrong end of the legal system? I'd be innocent, of course, but where does that leave me?

"Well," said one Baltimore lawyer I called, "Jessup is lovely this time of year."

He laughed because he's a lawyer. But he's a special kind of lawyer. In his spare time, he teaches ethics. Yeah, prospective lawyers take ethics, just like some of us take trigonometry. You have the feeling it comes up about as often.

The lawyer's name is William I. Weston. He's as upset about Shapiro as I am.

"Who is this schmo?" Weston says. "O. J. Simpson leaps out of a Hertz commercial and into his lap, and now he's the expert. The man is good, but I haven't heard any Oliver Wendell Holmes rhetoric.

"What does Robert Shapiro do that is worth $650 an hour? His costs aren't any higher than mine. . . . How much is ego worth? Maybe he needs a bigger car to fit his head in."

As it turns out, Shapiro drives a 20-year-old Bentley. His head fits in neatly.

"Lawyers have a code of ethics," Weston says. "There's one fundamental point we lawyers haven't come to grips with -- fees are supposed to be reasonable. I'm not a populist. I don't think we should spread the wealth around. But there are some limits. We have a public trust.

"The people have entrusted us with this license, and we owe them something."

Weston considers what he is saying and adds, "I may have to put a guard around my house."

Many lawyers believe their profession is unfairly bashed. Actually, it's probably not bashed enough.

"We're doing a pretty good job of addressing the problems of the poor," Weston says. "But anyone making $20,000 to $100,000 is out of luck, except for the most basic services."

Weston, who charges $125 an hour, which ain't exactly plumber money, says lawyers have told him people will think he's a bad lawyer unless he charges more.

How much is too much?

"Let's say you run over your neighbor's garden," Weston says. "In the great American tradition, rather than just leaning over the fence and agreeing to buy him some new begonias, the neighbor sues. Then $5,000 down the road, he's got new begonias and you can't go on vacation for 10 years."

A sexual harassment case could go, say, $40,000 at Baltimore rates. A murder trial? The rate is: How much you got?

Weston says the law has become the national religion and lawyers its high priests. The problem is, at those rates, you can't even afford to go to confession.

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