By Michael Henry
Atticus Finch would never advertise.
The protagonist of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” was the epitome of moral courage — the honorable lawyer as hero — protecting the wrongly accused Tom Robinson from an angry lynch mob in fictional Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression.
Atticus Finch probably returned to his country law practice after Tom’s tragic death, no doubt continuing to help grieving widows and impoverished Alabamans, freeing the innocent and righting wrongs for modest compensation.
As suggested by the heart-wrenching final scene, Alabamans stood when Atticus Finch passed by.
In much of today’s legal profession, the Atticus Finch model has been replaced by the Gordon Gekko model. In the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” the voracious investment banker, masterfully portrayed by Michael Douglas, proclaimed to a packed house that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Potential clients should turn their backs when the Gordon Gekko lawyers walk by. These attorneys proclaim from cheesy billboards on the interstate and in obnoxious daytime television commercials that they will get their viewers their check or their settlement. Subliminally they preach: “greed is good.” These lawyers, or “attorney spokesmen,” promise a clear path to easy money.
The fountainhead of this sleaze is the United States Supreme Court’s 1977 decision in Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona. Prior to Bates, it was unethical for lawyers to advertise. The Bates Court ruled that the First Amendment allows lawyers to advertise in a manner that is “not misleading.” ABA and state bar association restrictions against lawyer advertising were laid aside, soon followed by decorum, taste, integrity and finally, honesty.
Most lawyer advertisements are misleading. They misrepresent what the viewer should expect to receive from the tv lawyer.
Many of these “firms” are no more than settlement mills that depend on high volume and rapid turnover. The hapless client is led to believe from the commercials that his lawyer is the toughest and will fight the hardest to get the best possible result against the evil insurance companies, Big Pharma, or fat cat corporations.
In real life, many of the TV lawyers never set foot in a courtroom and rarely meet with the mark, er … the client.
It’s a game of numbers for each Gordon Gekko, Esq. Like strip joint barkers, the TV ads and billboards entice the marks through the front door. The staff works up the claim, arranges for medical examinations by their friendly doctor associates, and eventually settles. The firm gets its expenses and up to forty percent of the settlement.
Though the Bates case started it, this sorry state of personal injury and mass tort litigation has been exacerbated by too many law schools disgorging too many lawyers, and a legal profession unwilling to police itself.
A disproportionate percentage of state and federal legislators are attorneys. Trial lawyers contribute heavily to political campaigns. The politicians become fellow travelers, unwilling to curb destructive litigation and misleading attorney advertising.
Nowhere is this more evident than in mass tort litigation against Big Pharma, an easy and some argue, a deserving target. In a report released in 2014, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development estimates that the cost of bringing a new drug to market through FDA trials and studies is $2.6 billion.
But as soon as the drug is available, no matter its efficacy, specialized law firms file a class action, using television and media to mine for clients who may suffer ill effects, some of which are listed on the drug labels in FDA-required warnings.
Once a drug has been approved by the FDA, lawsuits spawned by the drug’s use should not be permitted. Or, the FDA should be abolished and trial lawyers allowed to fight it out with Big Pharma for consumers.
Either way, Atticus Finch is spinning in his fictional grave.
Michael Henry is a former attorney, prosecutor, politician, investment advisor, and novelist living in Oxford, MS. He may be contacted at email@example.com.