"A woman in Michigan filed suit claiming her neighbor's dog had jumped over her fence and sexually assaulted two of her dogs, one being a 16-year-old blind poodle."
"Suit was filed by a parent of a 12-year-old girl for $11.2 million because the girl had accidentally purchased an adult magazine, as a result of which she apparently continued reading it long enough to be 'shocked and mortified.' "
"In California, of course, two men sued and recovered $18,000 because they were required to wear neckties at a posh country inn. It was a sex discrimination suit, as women were not required to wear ties in the restaurant."
This was not a Rodney Dangerfield routine. It was Wilbur F. Pell Jr., a judge of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in remarks prepared for lawyers and bar officials at the convention of the American Bar Association here last weekend.
Pell was trying to make the point that, "with the complete popular acceptance of the idea that for every unpleasantness there must be someone who can be sued," the courts are hopelessly inundated with lawsuits.
That is one of at least three crises that confront the legal profession and are being discussed at great length. The three are related and it sounds as if they may come together some day soon and make one big crisis that could touch a lot of American lives in one way or another.
The first crisis, the one Pell discussed, is the explosion of litigation.
The second is the demise of federally financed legal services for poor people.
The third is a flagging interest among law students and law faculty in the kind of training that would enable the profession to handle the first two problems.
Pell said the flood of lawsuits has dramatically increased the costs and the time involved in seeking redress in the nation's courts. Those results Letter From Chicago are well-documented and much deplored. Beyond that, however he also said it threatens the basic quality of judging in America.
It is an "inherent threat to the quality of our work," he said. "We simply do not have the time, even with the help of our indispensable law clerks, to research issues with the thoroughness we would like."
Poor people, no less than corporations, have bought the idea that "for every unpleasantness there must be someone who can be sued." Doing the suing for them over the past decade have been thousands of legal services lawyers.
Fighting the Reagan administration's plans to eliminate legal services has become almost a holy war with this organization. It has produced the ABA's most massive lobbying campaign since the organization beat down no-fault insurance legislation a decade ago.
The lawyers have won a temporary victory, a massive cut in legal services instead of a total elimination, but most believe that total elimination of federal funding may be close at hand. They have now started appealing to the conscience of their profession to fill the gap that will be left.
"What are you and I personally going to do for someone who undoubtedly needs a lawyer and simply cannot pay?" John M. Ferren, judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, asked his profession last Friday.
He presented what he called "startling statistics" about legal aid in the District of Columbia, which exceeds most American communities by far in the resources available to poor people.
Even before the legal services cutback, Ferren said, "over one-fifth of the contested civil court cases had at least one party without a lawyer, primarily because of indigency."
In landlord-tenant cases, he said, 99 percent involve a client without professional representation. In divorce and domestic cases, he said that "over 85 percent of the cases had one of the parties going it alone."
"Every one of your communities undoubtedly is in a similar, perhaps even worse sitaution proportionate to the need."
The kind of schooling that prepares law students best for helping poor people and indeed for helping middle-class people, is called "clinical education." Clinical courses take the law students, under supervision, into surrounding communities and courts working on real cases with real people.
Though the need for such training is obviously going to increase, the interest appears to be decreasing.
James J. White, University of Michigan law professor, told colleagues here that his law school "can't fill up" its clinical courses any more. Michigan law school has 700 students. But only 30 are signed up for clinical work, he said.
White reported on a recent survey of 60 law students who did not sign up. "There was one thing that came through; they think the big law firms look down their noses at clinical education. They think they will have a smaller possibility of getting a job" if they waste time on these courses, he said.
White and other speakers indicated that faculty members have little interest in teaching clinical education. They regard these courses as inferior to the academic subjects and many are scared to teach them, since many have rarely, if ever, worked with clients or been in a courtroom.
These faculty have "attended elite schools and clerked," he said. They have come to teach in law school "because of an attachment to intellectual ends or because they enjoy the adulation of students."
They are "so horribly inexperienced that when they get into court they experience the same anxieties as the students. And the students enjoy seeing us stumbling, ridden with anxiety . . . It's like boot camp. The faculty members say they get a lot out of it but they say they never want to do it again."