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A Maligned, but Useful, Service

By Alixandra E. Smith

PRINCETON JUNCTION, N.J.--Flipping through Time Magazine last week, I came across a headline that jeered, "Who Needs Lawyers?" The story underneath described how a growing number of Americans, frustrated by expensive attorneys and empowered by the likes of Judge Judy, are filing cases pro se--that is, representing themselves in court. In fact, the trend has become so widespread that local court systems have had to go to great lengths to accommodate scores of pro se litigants who, if left to their own devices, bog down hearings as they struggle to decode complicated legal proceedings.

It's an inclination that's hardly surprising, given the paradoxical love of law and hatred of lawyers intrinsic in Western culture. One of the most famous and oft-repeated lines in Shakespeare's King Henry VI is, "First thing we'll do / let's kill all the lawyers!" Even those considered forward thinkers of their respective eras hold back nothing in expressing their disgust with the profession. Charles Dickens is remembered to have said, "If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers," and Benjamin Franklin once noted, "God works wonders now and then: Behold! a lawyer, an honest man!"

Pop culture has done little to improve the position of the attorney in society, giving us flaky Ally McBeal and cohorts on one hand and in-your-face, personal injury infomercials with 1-800 numbers and promises of cash rewards on the other. My local talk radio station, the ultimate embodiment of lawyer cynicism, plays the upbeat "Ode to a Sleazy Lawyer" every morning at 7:30, complete with sage tidbits of advice like: "Watch out for the ambulance chasers / Or you'll soon be served with papers." A quick search of the Internet finds thousands and thousands of websites devoted to bashing lawyers, including the rather disturbing www.deadlawyers.com, which categorizes dead lawyers by the manner in which they expired, such as random acts of violence, disgruntled clients or acts of god.

Growing up, I thought about becoming a lawyer from time to time, but it was all rather abstract--law held the same sort of hypothetical interest as medicine, astronomy, marine biology or a thousand other fields. Whenever I stopped to give the idea any serious thought, the negative connotations associated with attorneys and their dirty work always seemed to pop up--especially when reinforced by stories of lawyers in my extended family whose collective moral character was, at best, highly questionable.

In some ways, my initial reaction to law only heightens the irony of the fact that I ultimately fell into the profession as the stereotypes would dictate--for the money. Last summer, I landed a fantastically interesting, intellectually engaging, resume-beefing internship with my congressional representative--which also happened to be completely unpaid. After the excitement wore off, and the prospect of being without money for the following semester finally hit home, I applied to work as support staff at a small legal practice with the hopes of augmenting my bank account and, perhaps, learning a little bit more about what being an attorney actually entailed.

I started where one often starts at the beginning of a career--at the very bottom. For the first few weeks, I photocopied, typed up forms, tried my hand (and miserably failed) at taking dictation and sought to reorganize a mountain of files that had be recently transferred from another firm. Somewhere into my third paycheck (at this point I was still focused on the money), I was summoned into the office of one of the partners, who said that I had wasted enough time at the fax machine and that I should find myself some real work to do. Slightly bemused, I responded that I'd be glad to give whatever he had in mind a try.

"Real work" turned out to be, simply enough, dealing with the ins and outs of actual casework. For the remainder of the summer, and well into this one, I've been handed the responsibility of summarizing previous legal action, drafting motions and deciphering medical histories. And while I'm not convinced that my bosses are any closer to Erin Brokovich than my congressional representative is to Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, I've gained enough experience to say which of the rumors about lawyers--at least, those who operate at the local level--are true and which are false.

What's true is that some lawyers are, for lack of a more sophisticated word, jerks. I've definitely encountered opposition teams who employ every dirty trick in the book in order to gain the upper hand, and I've seen the way a particular law firm will target only the types of clients which promise the greatest return. More disheartening is the way certain attorneys will drop a petitioner at the first sign of serious trouble, leaving their client with large bills and without representation.

But what's false is that the responsibility of the failures in our legal system should fall solely on the shoulders of lawyers. There are plenty of other bad seeds around: the doctors whose diagnoses can be purchased at a price, the judges whose lack of concern is reprehensible, the plaintiffs who seem to have no other occupation than to file claims against everyone and everything they encounter.

Even more importantly, it's essential that we not become so mired in what some lawyers do wrong that we overlook the positive aspects of the profession. I can say with complete honesty that the majority of lawyers I have encountered in the past two years actually care about their clients, are extremely knowledgeable, and operate within the constraints of the existing legal system. They're collecting a salary, but they're working for it--work that ultimately serves to help people lay claim to the retribution they deserve, that peacefully settles potential conflicts and that is ultimately much more complicated than the mere paper-pushing they're often accused of.

Which is what a lot of the pro se filers in Time's article ultimately discovered--that lawyers are an essential tool for navigating the countless forms and petitions, statutes and stipulations that constitute our legal system. It's easy to join in with the lawyer-haters, but it's unlikely that anyone can get through life without needing the services of one at some point or another.

So before you decide to represent yourself in contesting last week's fender-bender in front of a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails local judge (a stereotype that is, in fact, completely warranted), take a long moment to consider whether or not you know your subpoena from your subpoena duces tecum, or your gross estate from your gross lease. Then give me a call--I'd be happy to recommend someone to help you figure it out.

Alixandra E. Smith '02, a Crimson editor, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House.

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