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`Sales' Tax on Legal Fees Offers Public-Service Option

Robert Gnaizda doesn't like the proposal that would require all New York lawyers to donate at least 20 hours a year to the needy. And it's not because he's against more legal help for the poor. He was the first litigation director of California Rural Legal Services, whose lawsuits on behalf of farmworkers in the 1960s rankled then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Now he's a partner at Public Advocates, a public-interest law firm in San Francisco.

The reason Mr. Gnaizda doesn't like the New York proposal is that too many lawyers are trained to run the meter on corporate clients, and can't move quickly and cheaply enough to represent the poor.

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``Big firms are inefficient,'' Gnaizda says. ``They can't do anything in less than 100 hours.'' Many such lawyers could easily do their 20 hours just researching a question of landlord-tenant law, he adds.

As an alternative, Gnaizda proposes a 6 percent national sales tax on the 500 biggest law firms - those with 60 attorneys or more. Presently, legal services are tax-free, he observes, so the levy would simply put them on equal footing with other consumer purchases. It would raise $1.2 billion, compared with the $300 million federal budget for legal services.

Gnaizda would spend part of the money to provide legal assistance for the middle class and to train nonlawyer technicians to handle routine matters such as divorces and wills.

There may be a ballot initiative in California along these lines, he says. And if the bar association fights it? ``That would only be helpful,'' Gnaizda says.

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