David Reynolds | Why not lawyers?

To everyone in this land of equal-opportunity bashing who has been following the great health-care debate, why hasn’t the obvious question been raised? Our doctors (and insurance execs) sure have been taking their licks. Why not the lawyers? Why not subject lawyers to the same punitive rules and regulations that Washington keeps dreaming up for our friends in white coats? 

I’ll tell you, Mr. President, if you equally bash doctors and lawyers, you may just win me over. Yep, treat lawyers as you have been treating doctors, and we might see eye-to-eye on health care.

Where shall we start, where going to a doctor’s office and visiting a law firm is on a level playing field? We can start by listening to the medical profession. Physicians know much more about the complexities of the law than lawyers know about the complexities of the human body.

First, in keeping with fair play, we will put a cap on contingency fees. This move will greatly reduce the number of ambulance chasers. No more a dollar to the lawyer for every two paid out to the client. How about a 10/90 split, like most commissions? And with the firm “donating” half to the poor. We will call it a Pool for the Poor Fund. Mexican poor will continue to be helped through pro bono.

Secondly, we will assign each legal procedure a maximum allowable cost, exactly the way Medicare does for doctors. Having prescribed fees will give law firms the feeling of what it is like to run a doctor’s office. A commission with only doctors will set legal costs, with all legal fees contained in either a three or a one-inch binder book. Of course, the thinner book may be unfair in some cases. For example, all divorce cases would be charged the same fee, say a $1,000, regardless of the number of fist fights at settlement.

Third, hourly billing will be eliminated. In fact, the current recession is forcing this long sought change on a few law firms by their largest clients. Fixed retainer fees are back. However, we need to do more if the lawyer-physician war is to ever end. Take a page from my car mechanic’s book. He charges an hourly rate times the number of hours his book says the job should take. Of course, he can do the job in far less time. But what financial incentives do pure hourly workers have to complete a job?

Fourth, we will eliminate the nickel-and-dime stuff lawyers charge. Charging for copies and faxes is insulting. Other professionals don’t do it. What’s next? Charges for shipping and handling of documents? I’m afraid that lawyers learned about charging for the small stuff from hotels that charge $200 a night plus 75 cents for each phone call. But cell phones have now put those places, should we say, in their place.

Fifth, legal work needs to be rationed if we have any hope of containing this country’s huge legal bill. But with free universal legal care there will be more filings, thus greater costs. As with medicine there are only three solutions: limit time spent with each client/patient; deny access; or, have them wait. Say you need an attorney. Get in line. If you happen to miss a court date, so what. After all your service was “free,” paid for by your government and thus you. Remember: Legal care is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Don’t ask me which section.

Sixth, lawyer ads will be banned, especially on the back of phone books and on TV. With reasonable contingency fees, this law should not be a problem.

Seventh, no class-action lawsuits. Doctors get paid one patient at a time. Why should lawyers not be paid the same way?

Eight, electronic legal records will be required by all those privileged to practice law. Of course, this will mean that your own records will be accessible through the internet, allowing you to ditch your lawyer and plea your own case. Now that’s real change.

These measures and more will be incorporated in the Lawyer Reduction Act of 2010, a bill now only a thousand pages until next year when our law schools turn out more legal wordsmiths. That is why this nation’s most pressing problem is to reduce the number of law schools. The president has assigned his school, Harvard Law, the essential task of determining which ones will be shut down. Will W&L Law follow Woody Chevrolet and be on O’s hit list? Or is the W&L law faculty sufficiently liberal to stay in business? The law czar will soon let us know.

So, what do you think? I know what my son thinks. He is a lawyer. However, he has three young sons. One may become a doctor. If so, I can’t wait for the family feud to begin.


– Column by David Reynolds

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