"History has demonstrated and other countries continue to demonstrate," says Kenneth Lasson, "that a civilization can exist without having a lawyer around every corner."
Whatever the number of lawyers--and that number is considerable--the University of Baltimore Law School professor wants you to know that there are situations in which you can represent yourself.
Don't let, says Lasson, the lawyer's patina nor sheer numbers bamboozle you. Forget that there is about one lawyer for every 381 Americans, or that about 40,000 more stream out of law schools each year, or that this country's 612,000 account for two-thirds of all the lawyers in the world.
Americans are the most litigious people in the world.
"What we've seen in the past half-century," says Lasson, "is the idea becoming firmly cemented in the American mind that if there's a problem, go see your lawyer about it. But it's just not necessary to do that all the time.
"The idea of representing yourself not only in litigation but in trying to bring about an amicable settlement of disputes is something that we should be behind."
Lasson is part of a growing movement--of lawyers and nonlawyers--intent on simplifying legal language and procedures to bring representation within the reach of the masses. One result is the spread of "drug-store lawyers" offering cut-rate prices for simple legal services.
Other lawyers are pushing for something known as "alternative dispute resolution" or "extrajudicial dispute resolution," a system using a lawyer or "quasilawyer" to counsel people toward settlement through agreement or arbitration.
That procedure--looked on as heresy by some in the profession--"brings people toward a meeting of the minds," claims Lasson, "to avoid the contentiousness of court and the lawyers' fees that are involved."
To help people decide what they can and can't do for themselves, Lasson has written a book with the Public Citizen Litigation Group: Representing Yourself: What You Can Do Without a Lawyer (1983, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 270 pp.; $8.25, paperback; $17.50, hardcover).
"What we wanted to do was to demystify the law for people. We wanted to teach the average citizen that he or she didn't have to rush to find a lawyer at the first mention of a contract or at the first blush of confrontation with someone else."
The book explains the basic legal ins and outs as they relate to your property, family, work and dealing with small claims and traffic courts. Separate sections cover use of the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act and gaining access to medical records. The final portion deals with finding and hiring a lawyer.
People might want to handle their own legal affairs for any number of reasons.
"There are people who find they would rather do it themselves not only because of the money question but because they just don't like lawyers," says attorney Alan B. Morrison, head of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, the public-interest law firm founded by Ralph Nader in 1972.
"We're seeing the same kind of symptoms that people began to see a few years ago regarding doctors. They're uncomfortable being told the 'Don't Worry, Sweetie, I'll take care of you' kind of thing."
You should remember, Lasson and Morrison emphasize, that when you go to a lawyer, he's not doing you a favor. "You're doing him a favor. You're hiring him and he works for you."
Morrison, 45, blames the profession itself for bad feelings toward lawyers. "The American Bar Association has done very little to correct the massive misimpression that all lawyers have got their hands in your pockets. There undoubtedly are some but they aren't everyone."
Lasson, 40, admits that some lawyers probably are going to think "we're out to get them and that this is really biting the hand that feeds us," but others will be "more realistic."
"There's a real need for good lawyers to do competent legal work," says Matt Valencic, 32, executive director of HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), a 120,000-member legal reform organization, "but there are many matters for which attorneys are not needed and on which other professionals or paraprofessionals could do the same work as competently for less money.
"Buying a house, getting a divorce, probating a will, doing some estate planning . . . for most people I would say you can keep your costs down if you simply get organized and you don't dump everything into a lawyer's lap."
To save the lawyer's time--and your own money--Valencic advises that you present organized materials, pertinent to your task. "Or just call him up for a consultation, or go to see him to check the work that you have done, if you really want to save money."
Echoes Lasson: "Try to work out the problem yourselves, if at all possible, and then go see a lawyer if you want to make certain of some of the technicalities."
Legalese is another matter. "We could do without a lot of the 'wherefores' and 'heirs and successors and assigns,' " says Morrison. "I find myself slipping into this language sometimes through extra 'whereases' here and 'henceforths' there."
Some states, including New York, have passed plain-English legislation, laws requiring insurance and medical contracts and credit agreements, for example, to be written in understandable, nonlawyer language.
"Lawyers have sought to perpetuate the mystery of the law," says Lasson, "in the same way that some doctors have sought to maintain the aura of authority about medicine.
"We're certainly trying at the law-school level to avoid legalese. One of the things I teach at law school is legal writing and the theme is fairly consistent: 'Let's try to avoid the old-time jargon. Let's write language that's understandable.' "
One of the things Morrison says he has worked for over the years is to "take the professionals off the pedestals and make the public realize that professionals engage in significant amounts of anticompetitive activity. They do a lot of things that in the ordinary business community would be plainly considered improper, as violating the antitrust laws or something else."
Of continuing interest to the Public Citizens Litigation Group is the opening of legal transactions to nonlawyers. Most jurisdictions will allow an individual to represent himself, but, "The real question," says Morrison, "is if you don't want a high-priced lawyer, can you get a low-priced legal secretary or medium-priced accountant or real-estate broker to do some of the work for you?"
Valencic claims that increased competition from sources outside the legal profession "would help bring prices down considerably. For instance, real-estate brokers could do more work now traditionally reserved for lawyers.
"We think the 'Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee' should be abolished and that lawyers should spend more time trying to discipline their own profession rather than to eliminate competition."
The American psyche, says Lasson, "lends itself to the idea that while you may or may not always win against City Hall, you don't have to stop fighting it. There's always a day in court that's permitted for the American citizen."
And that citizen, he and others might add, may be able to go to court as his own advocate.
Membership in HALT, $15 a year. Quarterly newsletter and series of Citizens Legal Manuals, including Shopping for a Lawyer, Real Estate, Probate, Small Claims Court and Using a Law Library. For more information: HALT, Suite 319, 201 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, or 546-4258.