Fred Graham's report tonight on the proliferation of laws and lawyers has the effect of anti-tobacco news on addicted smokers: It makes you want to light up a lawsuit immediately against the barrister of your choice.
Forget it. That litigious frame of mind, we come to see, is as much a part of the nation's lawyer problem as the cigarette is to the smoker.
In Los Angeles, there is now one lawyer for every 385 people. In San Francisco, there is one lawyer for every 107 people. Thirty thousand new lawyers joined the bar last year, as 150,000 new laws went on the books. They are there for one reason: to sue and be sued.
"It's fair to say that although the founding fathers set out to establish a government of laws and not of men, we wound up with a government not of men but of lawyers," Graham says in his introduction to "CBS Reports: See You in Court," airing tonight at 10 o'clock on Channel 9. The proofs of the following hour entail a tour of the wonders of contemporary litigation, these scenes included:
A couple try to divorce amicably, drawing up lists of division of property. Oh no, say the lawyers, managing to charge $25,000 in fees over four years to accomplish the same goal.
A 12-page Justice Department complaint against IBM starts an 11-year legal battle, as yet unresolved, which has already produced 91 million pages of documents.That's 91 million pages. Useless litigation? On the contrary, IBM lawyers have already made $150 million in fees.
In Manhattan Beach, Calif., a boy plays hooky from a public school and is hit by a car. His parents sue the school. While the case awaits trial, insurance costs for Manhattan Beach climb 1,300 percent.
A manufacturer of diving equipment complains that because courts now hold firms liable for injuries incurred while using their products, he dares not risk introducing new improvements in his line. Meanwhile, his insurance goes from $500 to $125,000 a year, though he has never been sued.
The clear implication of this report is that insurance companies exploit the litigious atmosphere by raising rates, even though their losses are not in fact as great as they appear. Graham alleges that one company, Transamerica, "announced underwriting losses in the millions, while the company's assets were actually increasing by almost 150 percent."
For balance, "See You in Court" does discuss the advantages of having fast-gun lawyers on the social landscape who shoot for their one-third share of potentially huge claims. Generations of asbestos workers, for example, would probably have no hope of winning claims for asbestosis unless lawyers -- motivated by profit as well as reform -- brought organization and expertise to the bitter and prolonged battle against the industry.
To its credit, though, this CBS Reports has a strong point of view toward its material, convincingly expressed by the urbane Graham: There are entirely too many lawyers in this nation of laws, lining their pockets, promoting conflict and dominating state legislators and congress.
It makes you mad enough to not sue somebody.