Like any profession, the legal profession has good eggs and bad apples. (Hope everyone’s had breakfast.) Take this incredible New York Times article today, “Failed by Law and Courts, Troops Come Home to Repossessions,” about a disgraceful practice by financial institutions. They target service members for repossessions and foreclosures – and eliminate their rights to sue - despite attempts by Congress for literally centuries to prevent this.
Writes the Times,
Efforts to maintain … special status for service members has run into resistance from the financial industry, including many of the same banks that promote the work they do for veterans. While using mandatory arbitration, some companies repeatedly violate the federal protections, leaving troops and their families vulnerable to predatory lending, the military lawyers and government officials say.
“Mandatory arbitration threatens to take these laws and basically tear them up,” said Col. John S. Odom Jr., a retired Air Force lawyer now in private practice in Shreveport, La. High-ranking Defense Department officials agree, telling Congress that “service members should maintain full legal recourse.”
Col. Odom? Good egg. On the other hand, there’s this guy:
“While we remain very supportive of the troops, we see no empirical or other evidence that service members are being harmed by or require relief from arbitration clauses,” Kevin Carroll, a managing director and associate general counsel at Sifma, said in a statement.
I mean, that’s just dishonest. Last week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found in a 700-page entirely empirical study that banks do exactly that – harm their customers by putting forced arbitration clauses in their contracts. (See our earlier coverage here.)
GM’s ignition switch scandal also illustrates the legal profession’s good egg/bad apple dichotomy. First, the bad - or more descriptively, rotten – apple(s):
Consider, for example. GM's outside counsel, King & Spalding. This firm helped defend GM during product liability litigation over the faulty ignition switches, viciously fighting families who sued the company and winning the company immunity for injuries and deaths caused by its pre-2009 crashes (including those involving cars with faulty ignition switches). GM didn't fire King & Spalding when the cover-up scandal hit. Instead, it put the firm in charge (along with GM's other outside law firm, Jenner & Block and the firm's Chairman, Anton R. Valukas) of its internal investigation into the ignition switch disaster, deciding what, if anything, the company - including its lawyers - did wrong. The report found no cover-up. Fifteen company engineers and lawyers were blamed and fired. All senior management, including Michael P. Millikin, the company's general counsel, were exonerated. And King & Spalding, whose corporate lawyers sat beside at least one of those engineers as he lied during depositions, emerged unscathed.
Here’s where the “good eggs” come in. Had it been up to these GM lawyers, the public would never have learned about the defective cars. Indeed, the world only learned of this scandal because of the persistence of one Georgia trial lawyer - Lance Cooper - representing the parents of GM crash victim Brooke Melton. Last week, GM agreed to settle with the emotionally exhausted Melton's. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Writes Corporate Counsel,
Lawyers in a Georgia lawsuit against General Motors Co. said at a news conference Monday that they have obtained documents contradicting Anton Valukas’ report and showing that GM was engaged in a “strong case of fraud” and a cover-up of its fatal ignition-switch problems.…
The alleged cover-up reached a “high level,” according to Jere Beasley, and went well beyond the 15 former GM lawyers and other employees who were dismissed last year in the scandal. Beasley is founder of the Montgomery, Alabama, law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles.
Beasley and attorney Lance Cooper, of the Cooper Firm in Marietta, Georgia, spoke at a news conference Monday ostensibly to discuss the settlement last week of the Ken and Beth Melton case against GM. The Meltons’ daughter, Brooke, died in an accident caused by one of the switches. Terms of the settlement are confidential.
But Cooper used the occasion to also talk about state and federal cases against GM that are still ongoing, especially a big multidistrict litigation that is tentatively scheduled for trial in January. He said he believed the Melton documents would be used and made public during the other trials.
Cooper said if it hadn’t been for the Melton case, which uncovered that a faulty spring in the ignition switch had been secretly replaced in new units, without GM ever doing a recall on the old ones, the company might have kept secretly settling lawsuits over crashes.
But the Meltons fought to uncover the truth, he said, and GM had to admit its culpability before Congress, conduct millions of recalls and change its safety culture.
I think it’s pretty clear who’s on the right side of this issue. Trial lawyers generally are - yet it’s hard to find a profession so full of “good eggs” that is more nonsensically maligned. Who remembers that this profession joined together after 9/11 to provide free legal help to more than 1,000 victim families deserving of compensation? Do you know about the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers’ Charities, which gives grants focusing on “issues related to education, children, battered women, and homelessness”? If you don’t, you should.
In addition to polluting juries and legislatively taking power away from them so that injured people lose more and more perfectly legitimate claims, the “tort reform” movement is also about making additional, in many ways impossible, demands on their lawyers. Corporate lawyers charge more per hour than many wrongly-injured people make in benefits in two weeks. Trial lawyers try to help these people. Good eggs.