Poor People Don’t Need Lawyers?
Paul Campos is righteously indignant that lawyers will now have to do 50 hours of pro bono work in order to join the New York State bar. The new rule may be misguided, but Campos leads off with a bizarre argument:
This kind of thing is the Platonic form of limousine liberal idiocy. Memo to Chief Judge Lippman: not having a lawyer is approximately item #714 on the list of what the average poor person in New York would spend money on if that person had extra money to spend. Here’s a thought experiment: Give 100 poor New York families $10,000 cash each. How much of that one million dollar bounty is going to get spent on legal services? Practically nothing, that’s how much.
You have to be pretty rich in this country before you start thinking of legal services as necessities rather than luxuries. Another thought experiment: how much money have you, dear reader, ever spent on legal services? If you are broadly speaking middle class the answer is more probably than not “nothing.” This is why lawyers who don’t work for rich people or corporations or the government are slowly or not so slowly going broke: because ordinary people, let alone poor ones, generally don’t employ professional legal services except in very limited circumstances (some but not most divorces, bankruptcies, arrests for minor but not too minor crimes. principally DUI).
If the people who control entry into the New York bar are so concerned about helping poor people, it would be far better to simply require members of the bar to give poor people money, rather than offering them free legal services, which most poor people at most times will find, in comparison to various far more pressing needs — food, shelter, clothes, transportation, medical care etc. — about as useful as an annotated copy of Finnegans Wake. (This isn’t meant to deny that some poor people will sometimes be in desperate need of legal representation, but rather to emphasize that the problems of the poor are largely a function of not having money, rather than of not having access to the legal process. For example, people are usually evicted from their homes because they can’t pay the rent, not because their legal rights are being violated, since in this country you have no legal right not to be forced to live on the street). [Emphases added.]
If you gave 100 poor New Yorkers extra money, most of them wouldn't spend it on a lawyer because most people don't need a lawyer on any given day. By the same token, most of them wouldn't spend it on antibiotics because most of them aren't sick. It doesn't follow that poor people don't really need lawyers, or antibiotics.
Campos claims the Bar Association could do more for the poor by simply giving them money. That's a red herring.
Imagine the Bar Association had the power and the inclination to make bar applicants donate the cash equivalent of 50 hours of pro bono work to a charity serving low income New Yorkers. If an hour of legal work is worth $100, 50 hours of said work is worth $5,000. About 10,000 lawyers pass the New York State Bar exam each year. A $5000 contribution from each would add up to $50 million, or about $29 per poor citizen of New York State. That's not going to make a dent in poverty, or significantly change the life of a single poor person.
However, free legal representation for the subset of poor New Yorkers facing eviction, or imprisonment, or the loss of their parental rights could save entire families from utter ruin. It's cheaper--not to mention fairer--to stop an illegal eviction than to pay for shelter and relocation for a homeless family. Ninety-nine percent of New York City residents facing eviction are unrepresented.
The relevant question is not whether legal representation is one of the most pressing needs of your average poor New Yorker. The issue is whether everyone who needs a lawyer can get one.
It might not be fair that new members of the bar have to donate thousands of dollars worth of legal work while established lawyers don't have to lift a finger, but that's a separate question.