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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > 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.