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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Too Little Too Late

WASHINGTON–Can the legal system and lawyers be reformed from within or chiefly from without by an increasingly impatient and outraged public?

Earlier this month, we held a conference in Washington entitled “Verdict on Lawyers” to discuss this and other questions relating to the popular criticism of lawyers these days. A few blocks away, the venerable American Bar Association hosted nearly 10,000 lawyers at their annual convention to discuss their business under the guise of public service exhortations and smooth public relations handouts.

Speakers at our conference talked a good deal about how attorneys fleece their customers and how difficult is for most Americans–poor and middle class–to use the courts and agencies which decide who gets justice. Repeatedly, lawyers were scored for promoting and defending a system which advances lawyers at the expense of consumers.

Examples to illustrate their points were not lacking. For years, people have been complaining bitterly about high legal costs, shocking delays, incompetence and outright malfeasance by attorneys. From the shocking abuses of probate court practice to the gross inefficiencies of personal injury practice, many lawyers have been benefiting and not reforming these transgressions of justice.

Where lawyers are not available–either because the consumer is too poor or because the lawyers aren’t interested in taking cases because the are not lucrative enough or too challenging to the powerful business and government–the people’s rights are almost worthless. For if Americans have legal right which require lawyers to put them into operation it follows that not being able to obtain a lawyer can shut people out of their own legal system.
Over at the American Bar Association (ABA) meetings, the tone would have been ‘business as usual’ were it not for the embarrassment caused by so many lawyers being involved in the Watergate corruption. There were hundreds of meetings by the numerous ABA sections and committees devoted to specialized areas of the law.

To the non-lawyer observer and the members of the press, an aura of concern and resolutions was projected to update the image of this most powerful of lawyers’ groups. As ABA President, Robert Meserve, put it candidly: “The ABA is coming into the 20th Century during the last third of the century.”

The trouble with the ABA and its committees has always been too much power and too much domination by the interests of the members’ corporate and business clients.

The ABA and its associated groups have enormous governmental-type influence. This includes what amounts to an ABA veto power on federal judicial appointments by the President. Uniform laws and other bills are drafted under heavy ABA involvement and then lobbied into state or federal law by ABA members very often on company-client missions.

Accrediting of law aschools, the type of bar examinations which are given and the reorganization of court procedures and agencies of government are part of the work done by the ABA complex.

All this power us used in a highly prejudicial way to consumer interests. ABA committee lobbying works to advance economic monopoly and to oppose consumer class actions, adequate liability by nuclear power plants, consumer control of prepaid legals services and reform of the insurance and banking industries–to name a few areas of reaction. Its Criminal Law Section restricts its interest to street crime and ignores the massive corporate and bureaucratic crime wave sweeping the nation which is keeping prosecutors and grand juries so busy.

The ABA puts its good foot forward only in those areas that do not challenge the economic interest of attorneys and their wealthy clients. But even in these areas as legal services for the poor, prison and court reform, the ABA does too little too late, but with the greatest of fanfare. At best its response over the years is like a sprinkler system going into a vain operation after the fire starts to rage.
As the bastion of the legal status quo, the ABA is not without a few reformers. But these lawyers will get nowhere without consumer pressure from the outside demanding that an open, accessible and just legal system be the over-riding purpose of the world’s largest association of lawyers.