Many years ago, I was a real estate broker. I sold some land for a local group of investors, and they didn't pay me the commissions they owed. I still remember the total: It was $547,000. Now that's a lot of money, even today. Back in 1984, it was huge.
I called a friend of mine who is an attorney and told him my tale of woe.
Lawyer: What do you want?
Me: I want what I'm owed, and I want justice!
Lawyer: Okay, how much justice can you afford?
I didn't know what he meant. He then explained to me how much I would have to pay him to try to get my money. I didn't have that much money to pay him, so he agreed to take a third of whatever he could collect. Excellent, I thought. I can live with that.
Several years go by, and we're finally going to trial in a couple of months when I get a phone call from the lawyer. I picked up the phone hoping it would be good news about our lawsuit, but of course I was being silly. He told me that the people I was suing had all declared bankruptcy. So what, I said. They still owe me the money, right? Nope.
Back in the 1980s, I was a real estate developer and owed millions to a local bank. It was fine, however, because I was selling more than enough to pay the mortgages and finance my seriously overindulgent lifestyle. It wasn't long before I got a call from the attorney for the bank.
Attorney: We're calling the loans.
Me: What do you mean? I'm current, and I pay you in full every month!
Attorney: We don't care. We're calling the loans. You have thirty days to pay us off or we'll take the property.
There was no way I could refinance everything in thirty days, so I called my lawyer. When I explained the situation to him, he decided to refer me to counsel in Boston that had the muscle to fight a bank. At the first meeting, the Boston lawyer listened to me rant about banking practices and agreed it was wrong of them to call my loans. By god, we'll fight them to hell and back to get you justice.
Wait a minute, there's that “j” word again. I was beginning to see this coming. Just as I was about to leave his office, the lawyer said, “Now all we'll need to get started is a retainer of $100,000, and then we'll bill you monthly until the case is resolved.” When I asked for an estimate of how much it might cost in total, he said about half a million. “Will you take it on a contingent fee basis?” I asked. He laughed. No.
I didn't have that kind of money (remember my fabulous lifestyle?), so I had to let it go. The fact that the bank went belly up less than a year later didn't really make me feel any better.
I think the point of all this is simply that lawyers and courts are not there to mete out justice. They're there to generate, file, and move mounds of paper, and that is one thing at which they are very good. The other thing lawyers are very good at is keeping track of time and how many copies they make. My lawyer keeps track of his time in tenths of an hour. When I see the bills, I often see that I’m charged for .2 or .3 of an hour. Wait, you spent twelve minutes that day working on my case? I remember talking with my lawyer about a case one time when he started telling me a personal story. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Are we done talking about the case?” When he said yes, I hung up on him and then called him right back. When he got back on the line, he asked why I hung up on him. I responded that I didn't want him charging me for telling me a story, and I had written down the time so I could check his bill. He wasn't real happy with me, and (not surprisingly) he's no longer my attorney.
I once got a Request for Admissions (that's when they send you a list of things they're trying to prove and you either Admit or Deny the statement they make) with 727 admissions. Are you kidding me? I had nothing to do with the Lindbergh baby, and even if I knew where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, I wouldn’t admit to it. I asked my lawyer to take it to the judge as it was completely ridiculous and “overly burdensome” (a legal term). He didn't, and I spent the next couple of days answering each and every one of those stupid questions. Questions like “Did the changes you made in the accounting system make it easier for you to steal money?” How do you answer a dumb question like that? It's sort of like trying to answer the question, “So when did you stop being a child molester?” Uh, April 21, 1997. Jeez.
You may suspect that I'm not a huge fan of the legal system, and you'd be right. I don't know a single lawyer—and I know a lot of them—who still wants to be a lawyer. The system is clogged, inefficient, and has nothing to do with justice.
If I could do one thing to make the system better and speed things up, what would it be? I would make it mandatory in civil cases for the losing party to pay everyone's legal fees. That should take care of it! Remember, when they tell you it's not about money … it's about the money.