Limits for Lawyer’s Fees
Mildred E. Hershner of upstate New York wants us to do something about lawyers. She, like many consumers, writes to complain about lawyers — their incompetence, their delays, their fees, or their deceit, as the particular case may be.
These people express their feelings with indignation and frequently lump together all bar associations and all lawyers as a class.
IT JUST ISN’T enough to inform them that our public interest lawyers spend a great deal of their time trying to tame the actions of corporate attorneys on health, safety and other consumer issues. Nor is it soothing to refer them to books and articles which criticize in detail many of the shortcomings of lawyers in their dealings with consumers.
People want action locally. They want to redress their grievances against attorneys and what they believe are outrageous charges—those levied, for example, to settle an estate or draw up relatively simple legal papers.
Well, Mildred Hershner and a public citizen lawyer, Alan Morrison, just won a Supreme Court case that should help reduce some attorneys’ fees and your long suffering hasten the day when lawyers compete rather collude for your business in hometown, USA.
IN A UNANIMOUS decision, the Supreme Court ruled that minimum fee schedules, enforced by bar associations to prevent lawyers from cutting their prices and give other lawyers an excuse for keeping their prices high, constitute illegal price-fixing under, the antitrust laws.
What this decision means is that the next time your attorney sadly informs you that he cannot reduce his fee because it would violate the ethics of the bar association’s minimum fee schedule, just remind him of the case of Goldfarb vs. the Virginia State Bar.
The case arose when Goldfarb, ironically a lawyer himself, was shopping with his wife for a home and couldn’t obtain a competitive price from a lawyer to conduct a title search.
When asked, attorneys would refer him to the bar association’s minimum fee schedule. Three years of intensive litigation ended in victory this month. The high court decision must be followed up by steadfast consumer action around the country. Attorneys’ and bar associations’ price-fixing habits raises attorneys fees about 10 to 15 fellow consumers percent, according to one conservative economic study. It could be more.
For example, while the Goldfarb case was in the courts, some northern Virginia lawyers cut their title search charges by 50 percent or more.
The economic rewards for attorneys have skyrocketed in the past 15 years. This surge is important to the organized bar.
IN 1960 the Illinois Bar ‘Association made this astonishing statement: “The respect for the legal profession and its influence in the individual community will be raised when the lawyer occupies his proper place at the top of the economic structure.”
At American Bar Association conventions, startling boosterism erupts. At one session in 1972, one Texas attorney boldly declared to his brethren:
“It is in the public policy of this country that you be prosperous.” A few years earlier, another ABA attorney was urging his listeners to “come right out at the beginning and sock him (the client) hard.”
In a majority of states, there is no official minimum fee schedule. Some have been phased out recently in light of the antitrust criticism. Following the Goldfarb decision, all state bar associations should adopt an official position against such schedules or any practicing tradition of price-setting among lawyers.
ABA President James D. Fellers has urged lawyers to use less expensive paralegal specialists in their offices to do routine law office work. Sound prepaid group legal insurance should be more widely available to citizens.
The Goldfarb decision should relieve some of the harassment young “storefront” lawyers have been receiving from bar associations for cutting prices below “accepted minimums” to bring competent low-cost legal services to neighborhoods.
THE RIPPLES from the Supreme Court’s decision can be far-reaching. Consumers Union is currently in court charging that bar associations are violating the constitutional rights of consumers by their rule prohibiting the publication of lawyers’ fees. CU wants to prepare a model lawyers’ directory including such information.
All this, together with mounting public pressure to simplify laws and procedures, points to a wave of consumerism that the bar cannot ignore.