Usually it takes me 15 or 20 minutes into CBS' "Sunday Morning" to get really irritated, sometimes even a half hour. But yesterday, they got to me with the very first story. It was a lengthy — OK, probably less than 10 minutes, but this is television —†exposť called "Unequal justice under the law." I say exposť because I suspect that's the word they would use, like they were revealing a shocking secret no one else had ever thought of.
They established the premise right off the bat:
Unless something changes, we're going to have to someday sandblast 'equal justice under law' off the Supreme Court building, because for the 80% of people who are poor, we don't have anything that comes anywhere close to being equal justice under law."
I'd quibble with that "80 percent who are poor" throwaway line, but never mind that. It's hard to take issue with the argument that if you can't afford a good lawyer, you're liable to have a very rough ride through the criminal justice system. We've known that for roughly 54 years, since approximately one day after the Gideon v. Wainwright case established the constitutional right to an attorney — but, obviously, not the right to a good attorney who can afford to spend a lot of time on your case.
OK, fine, CBS, you've stated the obvious problem for all of us, so what now? What's your point?
But CBS had apparently made the only point it intended to make. Its premise was also its entire narrative. Over and over and over it reinforced the point, with heart-rending story after story: Bad lawyer = lousy justice; if you're poor, you might just as well plead guilty, because that's the closest you'll ever get to a fair shake.
Not a single, solitary thing about what might be done about the problem. Like, maybe, getting state legislatures to kick in more funding for public defenders. Or maybe getting some of the prosecutors' offices flush with RICO cast to start a fund. Or getting (making) lawyers do a little more pro bono work.
Granted, most of these solutions are easier to identify than actually bring about, since they all involve spending a lot more money on something not many people want to spend any more money on. Hey, so what if they're poor. If they're charged with something, they're probably guilty anyway.
But it would have been nice if the program had at least acknowledged that others are aware of the problem and have given it more than a passing thought. Hell, they could have disposed of their original premise in one sentence, then did the whole segment on that, and it would have been more interesting, maybe even more informative.
And while we're on the subject, let's go on to the next level of problem, which CBS probably wouldn't cover in a million years even if they could figure out, which is that: You don't even have to be poor to get screwed by the criminal justice system. And the related point: Getting accused of a crime is the quickest way to have your life ruined, financially and otherwise, even if you're not guilty of a single thing.
I'm not rich by any means, but I could be described as comfortably well off. Within certain obvious limits, I can pretty much do anything I want to. I can "afford a lawyer," in other words. But if I were charged with a serious crime and had to hire an attorney, based on what I would need for adequate representation, I figure it would take about a week and a half, maybe two, for me to be totally wiped out. I mean, car gone, house gone, savings account and IRAs all gone.†
I suspect most of you are in the same boat. And even if you need a lawyer for something less than a criminal charge, something as simple as, say, suing your landlord for maintaining dangerous conditions, the system is such an intricate maze that you won't be able to do it yourself, and the expense and hassle of going through the ordeal even with a lawyer make most people not even try.
"Is there such a thing as an affordable lawyer?" an article in The Atlantic asks, and the depressing answer is, not really:
. . . . a lack of access to affordable legal representation—coupled with the obstacles facing anyone who wants to self-represent—imposes knock-on costs that ripple throughout society.
[. . .]
Lack of access to legal help, in other words, serves as a shield for neglectful landlords and all sorts of other bad actors—abusive husbands, predatory lenders, corrupt employers. Because it took someone with Ned's advantages to hold her accountable, his landlord was free to fleece tenants for years.
. . .†As a recent law review article notes, “The typical legal services consumer in the U.S. makes approximately $25 per hour, and is priced out of the services lawyers provide even at low attorney rates of $125-$150 an hour.” Those rates are well below the standard rates shown in the 2013 Laffey Matrix—a set of fee guidelines compiled within the U.S. Department of Justice—which start at $245 for a greenhorn associate.
But the article points out that help may be on the way (pay attention, here CBS).
Legal Zoom, which has been around for a few years, is already the legal equivalent of TurboTax,†"a largely do-it-yourself legal warehouse that allows users to generate (and, in some cases, file) legal forms through sophisticated online software. For an added monthly fee starting around $10, people can now also get advice (and “attorney-drafted letters on your behalf”) from a lawyer through the website."
A newer website is Rocket Lawyer:
Founded by Charley Moore in 2008, funded by Google Ventures, and now boasting a team of nearly 200 employees, plus a network of 450 on-call attorneys—Rocket Lawyer has, in effect, scaffolded the do-it-yourself model with more support from actual lawyers. Like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer offers customers the tools to create and file documents on their own electronically, but they also build the ability to consult with an attorney into their core product. Moreover, if a dispute arises—“and this is where it becomes incredibly valuable to people,” Moore says—customers can hire a lawyer to represent them from within the company's legal network for 40 percent of the lawyer's published rate.
So, where LegalZoom is more of a "do-it-yourself" site, Rocket Lawyer is a bit like a buyers' club. Instead of helping you sidestep the legal profession, it gives you help in accessing it.
And because these digital innovations are starting to give attorneys fits as they think about trying to keep up with their brick-and-mortar establishments, they are starting to think innovatively, coming up with concepts like the nonprofit group called Community Lawyers, which helps “create a pipeline of attorneys that would work in these underserved communities.”
Anyway, read the whole thing. Much more interesting and informative than wasting your time watching a bunch of breathless TV blowhards state the obvious over and over.