I am not sure if you can help me or not. I am in the middle of an arbitration with . . . . Suddenly, at the hearing, his witness came up with something that [Attorney _____] said [Attorney ______] had no knowledge of until then. I asked for a continuance so I could read and try to interpret what this new report means.
I e mailed [Attorney _____] and received a couple of brief definitions as well as this closing remark -- "This information that you requested is beyond the scope of your discovery request and is in the nature of an Interrogatory which is not a permitted discovery device in OR. However at least as to this request, I am providing a response to you as a courtesy."
My question is, can they actually . . . ? [Attorney _____] is trying to confuse me or turn around what I say . . . . I do not have the money for an attorney but am in desperate need of some advice on what to do, especially with this new information.
I normally just delete these, but I feel so bad about not being able to respond that I thought I would try to explain to my anonymous correspondent -- and anyone else who emails me like this -- why they won't hear back from me. It's not because I'm a jerk (or at least not only that).
What the typical "civilian" (nonlawyer) doesn't know is that lawyers -- who can sometimes seem so absolutely certain of everything -- are pretty much just like normal people. Underneath the facade of bravado bordering on (if not crossing well into) arrogance, is a human being full of doubts and fears about everything, from fear of being revealed as an imposter and someone who never should have been allowed near a law license, to fear of getting a bad reputation with other attorneys and judges, to fear of being bankrupted or ruined by a small mistake that blows up into a nightmare of hearings and appeals. It all boils down to the same old human fears -- that we're going to lose our careers, security, and families because of a mistake made while casually trying to help a stranger in need, so no one will love us and that we're going to wind up collecting soda cans in a shopping cart and sleeping under a bridge.
Pretty unlikely stuff, but fear isn't about rationality, it's about the lizard part of the brain that determines how we think about things before we've had a chance to "think" about them at all. And this is the killer part: some of the nightmare stories around this particular fear are true.
That is, unlike the urban legends about hidden razor blades in apples given away on Halloween (no doubt started by clever kids who want real candy, not apples!), there really are true tales of horror stories where lawyers have been hurt bad or even undone by giving legal advice to non-clients while just trying to help them, one human to another.
So, absurd as it sounds to people who don't live with these fears, a lawyer who responds to a emailed cry for help like this is risking their ticket to practice and an ordeal of responding to bar complaints, malpractice suits, and just generally suffering for a long time.
I hate the whole fear thing, and I do my best to try not to be afraid of everyone I talk to, and to remain a decent person despite being a lawyer. But, even ignoring the issue of constantly being asked to give away my only product (legal advice) to complete strangers, there's no way that I can stay in practice for long if I give legal advice to random callers and emailers, because there's no way to do that without screwing it up. And, given my low-costs, low-overhead, low-fee practice model, I can't afford any time spent answering a bar complaint lodged by a non-client -- the first one of those will probably put me out of business entirely.
So, while it pains me to constantly be reminded what a disfigured and inadequate legal system we have and how it systematically, relentlessly, and remorselessly denies access to justice to precisely the people who most need it, I too wind up going along, refusing to help the stranger whose cry for help reaches my ear or email account.
All I can suggest is that, when you find yourself in a bind and unable to afford even the Oregon State Bar's modest means program, you contact every elected official who is supposed to represent you and tell them how the lack of adequate civil legal services is affecting you. I have some ideas for broadening access to justice that I'm working on, and with luck they will bear fruit before too many more years go by; but in the meantime, since America has not yet recognized access to justice as a fundamental right, we ration it by price: those with money can have all they want; those without money are left with scraps or pushed out in the cold entirely. The corporations like it this way, and the corporations decide who gets elected in this country. Frighteningly, these corporations are becoming increasingly active in judicial races.
Until real people -- human people -- unite to demand a civil justice system that is more than just rhetorically open to all, we're stuck. I do my part, I'd appreciate it if you would do yours: Every time you get a chance, every time a candidate asks for your vote, tell your elected officials and candidates, from dog-catcher on up, that you want them to fund a robust expansion of civil legal aid programs until every real person in America with a legal problem is able to afford to get the help they need.
Postscript: You would think that disavowing science and preferring the insights of revelation to all the evidence would keep you from getting an invitation to speak to a lawyer trade show all about the toys that could only be created after scientists unlocked some pretty deep secrets in nature. Weirdly, Ben Stein -- who has managed to cultivate a rep as a smart guy, but who pushes creationism -- was invited to give a keynote talk to the ABA Tech Show. Still, he is apparently smart on non-science matters:
“We all have rights, but it can be staggeringly expensive to possess those rights,” Stein said, “Unless you can get access to a lawyer, there’s a greatly diminished chance of getting access.”
“This makes [lawyers] and their clients richer in material and emotional ways, more powerful as human beings and citizens,” Stein said to a packed audience. “U.S. and Canadian lawyers take their greatest national inheritances and they share it with everyone else who is not necessarily rich. They let everyone all over North America know they have legal rights and what those legal rights are and what they aren’t.”