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Large-billed 'Legal Eagle' - endangered?

It is not a pretty sight - another segment of our population hitting the skids. You can see the anxiety and fear in their once-proud, even arrogant, faces. The cold, relentless wheels of an evolving economy are grinding up still more Americans.

Who are these huddled, miserable victims? The hard-core unemployed? Migrant farm workers? Impoverished Appalachian hill folk? It's even sadder. Our nation's lawyers have fallen on hard times. (A caution: The succeeding paragraphs contain lurid descriptions which the squeamish reader may want to skim or avoid altogether.)

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Vignette: A client visits her attorney's office and is met not by a bevy of nail-filing paralegals but by the counselor himself. He explains nervously that his entire staff has taken simultaneous vacations. Something else is askew. Where are the Picassos and Monets that once littered the walls? Or the half-acre Oriental rug dating to the reign of Kublai Khan?

After being quickly ushered into the inner sanctum, the client eases herself warily down onto an aluminum-and-nylon-webbed deck chair. The Chippendale is in the shop for restorations, the barrister explains, swallowing hard. On the desk, however, is the topper - a plain brown paper bag. Unmerciful heavens, it's his lunch!

Ironically, the financial plight of solicitors like the one above can be attributed as much to the profession's very success as anything else. For years, more and more lawyers have been able to charge more and more people more and more money. And, as Jimmy Durante once observed, ''Everybody's tryin' ta get inta de act.''

The number of American lawyers has nearly doubled in the past 15 years, and law schools keep pumping them out like water from a swamp. Today we have 25 times as many lawyers per capita as Japan. If World War III were held in a courtroom, we would win hands down. Critics charge that some among our legal legions may actually be encouraging frivolous or nuisance litigation to make ends meet. Jeepers, wouldn't that be unethical?

Fortunately, other lawyers are taking a more constructive approach in adapting to the changing economic conditions. Many new law offices are opening up in modest but convenient storefronts at shopping centers and malls. For the first time, business principles are being widely applied to the practice of law. Storefront firms specialize in routine matters such as wills, uncontested divorces, and minor criminal charges.

The results are lower fees and thousands of Americans availing themselves of legal counsel for the first time. When a simple will costs just $55, people will be more willing to have wills written, won't they? This sort of bargain-basement approach is putting pressure on those lawyers who charge $55 to wave at a client from a golf cart.

The new trend seems predominantly positive. Americans are beginning to shop for legal services the way they do for bologna at the supermarket. If there is a lot of bologna to choose from, they will pick the $30-an-hour brand over the $ 100 alternative every time.

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All the same, there is a touch of sadness about this brave new legal world. A follow-up on the earlier vignette: Waking at 5:30 in the morning and unable to get back to sleep, our legal client opens her front door to see if the morning paper has arrived. Down the drive comes the delivery boy, looking oddly unsteady on his undersize Schwinn. My, he's grown, she muses. As he gets closer, she realizes he is 6 feet, has a day's worth of stubble, and is wearing wing-tip shoes.

Great Caesar's ghost, it's her attorney!


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