Open your mail and read it.
This common sense tip sounds simple enough and seems to have nothing to do with legal affairs.
But Louis M. Brown, one of the first lawyers to practice "preventive law," has added this suggestion as another basic principle for what he calls "legal health."
I like to think of legal health as not having to spend a lot of money on lawyers. And the best way to avoid spending too much money on a lawyer is to make sure you aren't too late when you decide you need one.
Recently, Brown was telling several law professors at San Diego Law School about his early experiences with preventive law. Employees in his father's business sought his counsel after a legal proceeding had already begun.
That's too late, he explains. Why not consult a lawyer when you first become aware of a possible problem?
"It always disturbs me to see situations where people are in trouble that could have been avoided or minimized," Brown says.
A law professor commented that an obvious way to be informed in advance of potential legal problems is to read one's mail. There, you will often find warnings of future legal complications.
Actually, that could be a risky and time-consuming suggestion in today's world. If you actually read all the junk mail in your mailbox when you come home from work, you'll probably miss dinner.
If you want to get rid of some of the junk mail, so that you have time to open and read all of the real mail, don't bother trying to sue to stop it. A San Francisco public-interest lawyer recently lost a fraud, breach of contract and unfair advertising lawsuit he filed on behalf of his son, Joshua, who at age 3 received a letter from Fortune magazine offering a free watch "just for opening" the envelope. In fact, you had to subscribe to the magazine to get the "free" gift.
Joshua's father demanded the watch, but the magazine "not only refused to give a watch, it did not even give Joshua or his father the time of day," explained a California Court of Appeal.
The court was, however, impressed with the lawyer's tenacity.
"Although most of us, while murmuring an appropriate expletive, would have simply thrown away the mailer, and some might have stood on principle and filed an action in small claims court, . . . Joshua's father . . . launched a $15 million lawsuit," the court noted.
But the court was not impressed enough. Relying on the legal maxim de minimis non curat lex or "the law disregards trifles," the court dismissed the lawyer's suit. (He might have had better luck in small claims court.)
There is another way. Although you won't get rid of all the junk in your mailbox, you can lighten the load by stopping catalogue mailings to your home. Send your request to be removed from catalogue mailing lists to Direct Marketing Assn., Consumer Affairs Division, 6 East 43rd St., New York, New York 10017.
Most legal proceedings begin with some kind of warning, and it often comes in the mail. It may be a letter from a collection agency that will later turn into a garnishment of your wages if you don't work out a payment arrangement. Or it could be a letter demanding delinquent child-support payments and threatening a visit to the district attorney.
Worst of all, it could be a letter from the government. Whether it's an IRS audit notice or a refund check, you wouldn't want to miss it.
So practice preventive law. Open your mail.
And once you weed out the junk, read it.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.