A young District couple was fed up after waiting two months for their former landlord to return their security deposit. They sent him a "legal sounding," certified letter detailing their rights, as outlined by a D.C. consumer agency telephone recording. Three days later, they had their money -- plus interest.
An Arlington man's mortgage application was rejected due to a bad credit rating he didn't know he had. Following the steps recommended by a book he bought from a drug store bookrack, he cleaned up his credit record and got a mortgage.
A Maryland widow wondered if she could legally protect her estate from nursing home creditors. She got her answer when she called a law hotline provided by her county's bar association.
"People are more savvy about their legal rights," says attorney Shirley Bigley, a member of the public awareness committee of the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA). "They are learning from TV, from the media, even from Judge Wapner on 'The People's Court.' "
A week ago, when MSBA sponsored its seventh annual "Ask A Lawyer" program to promote Law Day, more than 2,000 people statewide called, in eight hours, for free over-the-telephone legal advice. The night before, some 300 callers seeking confidential counseling rang 30 volunteer lawyers manning the phones on a Maryland Public Television special called "Lawline '86." About a quarter of the questions, says Bigley, concerned "the hot topics of child custody and divorce . . . and half weren't problems requiring judicial process.
"What we've witnessed is that people's awareness of legal issues has increased -- but they still don't know how to resolve their situations. Many times, they think there has been a wrong done to them but they don't know what to do about it."
While deregulation, advertising and cut-rate legal clinics have in recent years rocked the foundation of a profession, those changes have also spurred an "evolution" fundamental to American law: an evolution of public education. Just as the American people have grown more knowledgeable of exercise, nutrition and personal finances, they have also become more sophisticated in legal issues that affect daily life. A result: more demand for lowbrow law.
"Consumer awareness has increased out of necessity," says Gail J. Koff, author of The Jacoby & Meyers Practical Guide to Everyday Law (Simon & Schuster, $8.95), a book promoted as "an educational resource that people can consult before stepping into a lawyer's office, or before attempting to handle their own legal problems."
A founding partner of one of the first national discount law firms, Jacoby & Meyers, Koff says circumstances force-fed the public the law. But, noting that her book is in its third printing since its release in February, she says the public seems to have an appetite for legalese.
"If you think about the changes, even in the last 10 years -- no-fault divorce, bankruptcy is no longer difficult, credit cards have multiplied, people living together, organ donations -- people need to feel a little more in control of their own lives," says Koff. "We're all searching for ways we can impact on our own universe."
Availability has made that impact all the more possible. Besides popular books, do-it-yourself kits, radio call-in shows and TV programs that provide a sense if not an understanding of the law, there simply are more lawyers than ever. The American Bar Association's estimate of almost 700,000 attorneys in the United States today is expected to reach more than a million by the middle of the next decade. Already, we have more lawyers per capita than any other industrial nation -- a fact Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger two years ago related to a "sharp decline in public confidence" as the law of supply and demand catches up with the profession.
But the numbers, contends Koff, have helped the public demystify the lawyerly image that traditionally has kept the profession on a pedestal. The psychological and physical barriers that once hindered people from turning to a lawyer, she says, are crumbling. Her firm, she adds, has opened 150 offices nationwide and has seen 800,000 clients since 1972, charging fees that "middle-income people" could afford.
"It has always been to lawyers' advantage to perpetuate the myth of the esoteric and intimidating," says Koff. "People have even been afraid to talk to them about fees. But people have become a little more aware of dealing with attorneys, shopping around for an attorney, getting written estimates for legal fees, finding the right experience."
Koff also attributes much of the change to legal advertising -- a practice that storefront legal clinics such as Hyatt Legal Services and her firm pioneered, but still considered demeaning by some attorneys. Chief Justice Warren once called advertising law services "unseemly," equating it with selling "mustard, cosmetics and laxatives" and warning that the day would come when we would see a football star on television saying, "If you really want to make a touchdown against your opponents, go to Quirk, Gammon & Snapp."
Scoffing at that attitude, Koff says: "Advertising has had a very practical effect on lowering legal fees and making people more aware and educating them on legal services. It has had an effect of breaking down the barriers between the people and legal services."
And the services that have had the greatest impact on making law everyman's institution, she maintains, are the off-the-rack law firms. At Jacoby & Meyers, "we said delivering legal service is a business," says Koff. "We set up a business delivering law to the average person. Now every firm basically says the legal profession is a business."
Yet some experts play down the influence of more and cheaper lawyers. "The average layman today feels he has a great deal more access to law, the courts, and to lawyers than ever before," says Charles Whitebread, law professor at the University of Southern California Law Center. To call a lawyer a generation ago was "a big deal" or meant big trouble, says Whitebread, whereas today there's a lawyer "on every block."
But Whitebread insists the number that has counted most in closing the abyss between public and law was "those very bright and able people . . . who went to law school a decade ago with the view of making legal services available to the poor."
Terrance Sandalow, dean of the University of Michigan Law School, agrees credit is due to "a lot of very idealistic young people in the '60s and into the '70s who saw the possibilities of using law" broadly, but stops short of attributing "legal sophistication" to John Q. Public.
"It's undoubtedly true that people have a greater rights consciousness, a sense that if there is a grievance, that there must be a recourse of law," says Sandalow. "We have, as a generation, come to believe that if something bad happens to a person, the legal system must offer some sort of redress . . ."
In the final analysis, says Sandalow, Americans now see law "as a tool of social change rather than the tool of social stability it once was."