I was explaining the cost of law to one of my classes recently. A woman in Florida woke up from surgery to find doctors had removed the wrong breast. A well-respected attorney down there told her a lawsuit wasn’t worth the cost. Friends lost half their life savings to an abusive stockbroker. The best securities lawyers in their area told them that the tax deduction plus the cost of legal fees would equal any judgment, so don’t bother. A woman fired from her job for complaining about sexual harassment was told it’s not worth the cost to sue.
There may be other lawyers willing to take those cases. But these aren’t small matters to the people involved. More, all of the potential clients were middle class. Two of them could or did own their own homes and had good university level teaching jobs. The third was just starting out but with a set of unique skills that should set her on a very profitable course in business.
What happens to the janitorial staff or the short order cooks, people with steady jobs but without a stack of resources to fall back on? The unemployed poor are supposed to be able to go to legal aid societies but the government doesn’t want them doing any but the most run of the mill litigation lest they actually assert their rights. And just to make sure, government backs up its legal restrictions with minimal budgets so the poor are lucky to get any representation.
We fuss about the cost of a legal education, but we have far fewer lawyers than the public deserves. High price jobs are almost all about corporate perks. You and I are lucky to find lawyers who know how to solve our more common problems. If you’ve lost a job, and find a lawyer to help you, he or she will probably have to tell you that any litigation over what your company did to you will take years and you’re going to have to find another way to survive in the interim. In the years I spent working for a legal aid society, I had to do just that repeatedly.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is suing to get the state to put sufficient resources into public defender programs so that innocent people won’t be doing jail time and it won’t be a crime to be too poor to afford legal representation. They’ve put their fingers on some real miscarriages of justice and they are trying to prevent it from continuing to happen.
The right to a lawyer, however, only covers criminal cases. And the movement for legal insurance for civil cases lost steam years ago. But I don’t know a good alternative for most people. You already have legal insurance with your car insurance policy. But except for traffic accidents, most of us don’t have insurance that can cover some of the most devastating legal insults that threaten our homes, jobs, children, health and survival. It is a huge problem. And we ought to deal with it.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, 4/9/2013.