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Dershowitz on Lawyers

September 29, 1988

Alan Dershowitz is a Harvard law professor who apparently feels guilty about how he makes a living ("Lawyers Will Be a Joke Until They Clean Up Act," Op-Ed Page, Sept. 13). He writes, "The vast majority of lawyers' time--especially that of the super-elite lawyers, the ones who I help train at Harvard--is devoted to helping the super-rich get even richer and to pay less in taxes."

Poor Alan. It must kill him every time he cashes his paycheck. I'm not ashamed of being a law professor, though, and I'm proud of the work that my students do.

Let's look at the jobs that lawyers do. (It's more fun to engage in lawyer-bashing and to distort the facts, but bear with me.) A lot of lawyers, for example, spend their time trying to obtain compensation for people who have been injured. The injured people generally cannot afford to pay any of their legal costs, since they have frittered away their money on such luxuries as medical care, food, and rent. Thus, the lawyer takes these cases on a contingent-fee basis: If and when a recovery is obtained, the lawyer gets paid. Otherwise, she doesn't.

We could greatly reduce the number of lawyers by severely limiting the contingent fee system. (An initiative on the November ballot, Proposition 106, would do exactly that.) Who would benefit by that proposal? Would the injured victims be able to obtain compensation? Would the people responsible for paying for the injuries--big businesses and insurance companies, for example--be likely to compensate these victims adequately if the much-maligned "trial lawyers" were not around to enforce the victims' rights? I doubt it.

The unstated assumption that Dershowitz makes is that those lawyers who appear to be helping the rich are hurting other people. Let me attack that assumption head-on: take, for example, business lawyers. I teach students who will practice in the area of commercial finance and insolvency. Yes, their clients tend to be large financial institutions. That does not mean, however, that the business lawyer's work is counterproductive. The majority of their time is spent in arranging lending transactions or in attempting to work out the problems of financially-troubled borrowers. In either case (arranging or restructuring financial transactions), the lawyer's work makes financing and business credit more readily available.

In many Third World nations, the weakness of the legal system has exacerbated the problem of economic underdevelopment.

So cheer up, Alan. I won't disagree with your argument that lawyers should spend more time in serving the public. But I do disagree with your statement that lawyers "deserve" scorn. We--more accurately, our students--perform a useful service. If you don't think so, just imagine what life would be like in an anarchic society, without laws and without lawyers to administer those laws.


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