If you're like me, sometimes when you tell people you're in law school, they launch into the tired old song about how our society is too litigious and lawyers are part of the problem and how they can't believe that a nice young man like me is going to be a lawyer because lawyers are evil. My reaction to this depends on the circumstances. At times I just smile and nod or say something like "sure, but not all lawyers are evil. Some lawyers do good things."
Other times, I engage these people in debate. I say that in my two years of law school and four legal internships/clerkships I've noticed that they're right that there definitely are some problems (Ok, lots of problems) with the way the legal system works in this country. But the problems I've identified are usually different than the problems that most of the general public has. Their primary complaints are simple ones: (1) people are too quick to sue, (2) people sue people for stupid things and (3) too many criminals get off for no other reason than that they have a good lawyer, which creates a sense of unfairness and injustice that results in a class system that's so pronounced it might as well be a caste system.
So let's take these complaints one by one and see whether the complainers are accurately characterizing the issue. First we'll focus on the fact that people are too quick to sue. That might be true, but I think it's over-exaggerated. Most people don't file lawsuits every day whenever they feel slighted. Most people try to work out their problems before filing a lawsuit, although I'll admit that not everyone works as hard as they should before deciding to sue.
But the main flaw in this argument -- or the flaw in blaming the legal system -- for this argument is this: the fact that people are too quick to sue has little to do with the legal system. Sure, the legal system makes it easy for anyone to have their day in court, but being too quick to sue is a cultural, psychological or human nature issue. Making the system more difficult to bring lawsuits would treat the symptoms, not the cause of the problem. I don't have a clue how to make people rely less on lawsuits or be less quick to sue, but my point is that it's not the legal system's fault. It's the people's fault. People need to be more focused on working things out. I'm not talking about a utopia where all conflict disappears; but if our society is too litigious, the fact that courts are easy to access is only one factor in why people are so quick to sue. Why are they so quick to sue? Don't ask me. Talk to a shrink.
The next complaint, that people sue for stupid things, is a ridiculous argument. For every inane lawsuit that somehow passed the smell test and wasn't dismissed as a waste of the court's time that you read about online, there are thousands of lawsuits which have merit. And the worthwhile lawsuits get no attention, which is as it should be. Spend a day at the courthouse and if you manage to stay awake you'll see nothing remotely frivolous about 98 percent of the cases that are heard day in and day out. Lawsuits are a part of life and to rely on the occasional wacky suit that makes all the headlines because it's so wack as evidence that people sue for stupid things is not a sound argument.
Finally, there's the knee-jerk reaction to criminal defense attorneys who many people see as scum whose sole job is to help criminals roam free. First of all, the Supreme Court has said that everyone has a right to an attorney (although that's what they teach you in high school, in law school you learn that it's only partially true; not everyone gets a lawyer.). But the important thing is to think about the system. If you're arrested for a crime, the government has an impressive set of resources it will use to put you away. Cops will come up with evidence and attorneys (prosecutors) will do their best to put you away. So do we want to live in a system where individuals are on their own and can't use whatever available resources to oppose the cops and prosecutors, who have all the time in the world to build a case against you? I think not.
And as for the argument that the wealthy get the better attorneys, so they're more likely to get off, well, I can't dispute that point. But we live in a capitalist system where money is the answer to most of life's problems (except how to be happy). Is it fair that the poor hard-working schlub who commits a crime will spend more time in prison than the millionaire who commits the same crime? No. But life's not fair. More importantly, that's not a problem unique to the legal system. That's capitalism. That's the market-based economy. People who have more money are better off than people who have less money. As with the lack of lawsuits, this complaint is entirely unrelated to the legal system.
So I agree that the legal system has problems. But those problems -- billable hours, a language that keeps ordinary people from understanding the system, a faulty education system that takes three years instead of two, etc. -- are a discussion for another blog post on another day. The legal system is only part of the problem of an overly litigious society.