DAWN FLEETWOOD and her partners have sold thousands of T-shirts and sweat shirts with the words on them: "The First Thing We Do, Let's Kiss All The Lawyers." That's not really what Shakespeare wrote in King Henry VI, part II. He had a villain say, "Let's kill all the lawyers," a quote often picked up by those attacking the law profession. Many critics may not realize that the Bard was praising lawyers. These defenders of rights were blocking the villain in the play.
Miss Fleetwood rightly points out that the United States has many "good, working lawyers" helping people, doing many useful tasks. "Bashing of any kind in the United States has to cease," says the proprietor of Hearsay Products.
Nonetheless, there is a widespread perception that the law profession has gotten out of control in the US. People read that the government's legal costs in cleaning up the thrift institution mess were about $733 million last year, with $615 million going to outside law firms. They note that Robert Strauss, just nominated ambassador to the Soviet Union, made $8 million in fees in the acquisition last year by Matushita Electric Industrial Company of MCA Inc., the Hollywood entertainment giant, for $7.5 bi l
lion. And even if some citizens question President Bush's political motives in attacking the Democratic civil rights legislation as a "quota bill," they may empathize with his concern that the bill "invites people to litigate, not cooperate."
"I am opposed to opening up wide new areas in which people can file spurious lawsuits," says Stephen Magee, a professor of finance at the University of Texas, Austin. The former economist in the Nixon White House claims that each lawyer in the US costs the economy an average of $1 million per year. The nation's 770,000 lawyers are dampening national output by more than half a trillion dollars a year, he says. Dr. Magee acknowledges that lawyers do "good things in certain ways." Consideration of the civi l
rights bill, he says, should weigh the possibility it would benefit personal rights.
Nonetheless, he contends that much law practice is engaged in redistributing wealth, rather than creating it. Lawyers do "a lot of harm" to the economy by attempting to acquire the wealth of others through lawsuits. Magee call his theory the "Invisible Foot Theory," a play on Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand Theory." The self-interest in this case, however, damages rather than helps the economy. Defendants waste time and money fighting spurious lawsuits in "endless" judicial proceedings. Talented people ent e
r law, seeking high earnings, rather than other professions. Excessive product-liability litigation discourages innovation.
Magee bases his claim in part on a statistical study of 34 countries in which the number of lawyers is plotted against the country's gross national product over the period 1960 to 1985. The mathematical result shows a strong correlation between the number of lawyers and the relative strength of the economy.
Countries with few lawyers per capita, such as South Korea, Singapore, and Japan, enjoyed a high GNP growth. Countries with many lawyers per capita, such as India, Chile, Nepal, and the US, have had poorer GNP growth over the same period.
Magee maintains that the chances of such a statistical correlation being false are only three out of 100.
Whether Magee's analysis shows a valid correlation or not, many have commented and even written books on the "litigation explosion." Though an American Bar Association spokesman says, "People file lawsuits, not lawyers," it is clear that lawyers stir up business. And lawyers are multiplying - 280,000 in 1970, perhaps a million by the end of the century.
Magee says this country, like Germany and Japan, should limit the number of lawyers admitted to the bar to reduce their numbers over time. And the government should tax excessive liability claims to discourage the damage "lottery."
In the meantime, many Americans are trying to avoid high legal fees. Laurence Pino, an Orlando, Fla., lawyer, says 1.2 million copies of six legal software packages for computers were sold last year. His own, dubbed "The Desktop Lawyer," sells for $139 - but comes cheaper than a live lawyer for many routine matters. "The average individual is simply tired of the necessity of hiring a lawyer," he says. "Lawyers do not add anything to the productivity of this country."