By Michael Alder
My past year serving as president to the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) gave me deeper insight into the plight of young trial lawyers. They often want to represent people who have solid cases against large companies and other organizations but simply don’t have the resources to mount a winning defense.
In President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech, he pointed to the divide in our country of those with great fortune and the many with none. We need to ignite the fire in our young attorneys to take on even more clients who seek restitution for injury, fraud and trademark infringement but cannot afford to pay an hourly rate.
All lawyers should have the opportunity to take on these cases and not be threatened by the money and power on the other side. Our society needs these eager attorneys, and these attorneys need our support so they can go to trial unafraid that a case will take them to ruin. As a group, trial lawyers know firsthand that we must fight to ensure equal access to justice. It’s critical for the health of the industry, and it starts with our youngest lawyers and most vulnerable clients.
Clearly a contingency case makes more sense for people with high-need cases because it affords these potential clients the same quality representation as larger entities. This also places positive pressure on plaintiffs attorneys to win – demanding their best quality of work – in order to receive payment.
Unfortunately, the trend I’ve seen as president of CAALA is less and less young plaintiff attorneys taking on contingency cases. Is this the judicial system we deserve and expect as Americans? Are we leaving lower-income plaintiffs outside of the courtroom door to be battered, ignored and hamstrung? Are we shirking our responsibilities as experienced lawyers in protecting the democratic structure of the legal system and the clients who are suffering due to negligence or civil-rights infringement?
It’s time to protect our young lawyers, help foster their careers and limit their debt. It’s time to ensure the door to the courtroom is not barricaded with gold tape but open to the bus driver hurt on the job as much as a corporation with bottomless pockets. It’s time for law firms in Los Angeles and around the nation to develop programs and funding to ensure equal access to the legal system.
Here is my proposition: For the health of the industry and equal access to justice, mid-sized and larger law firms need to come together to develop and create more funds and infrastructure to help young lawyers outside their firms pay the standard costs of going to trial on contingency. Of course, not all cases should qualify.
A lawyer would apply to have access to these funds by presenting their case, and if accepted by a committee, then they would receive the money to cover mediation sessions, depositions, court filings, and a host of other trial expenses that make cases untenable. If the lawyer won their case, they would pay back the fund from their settlement, ensuring the account will be replenished for future cases. However, if the lawyer loses, they would not pay back a cent.
The recommended amount these young plaintiffs attorneys should receive is modest, especially considering the impact on cases – 50 percent of costs up to $10,000. That seems like a reasonable price to protect our institution.
As the old adage goes, justice delayed is justice denied, and with courts closing due to budget cuts, trials are already extended over a longer period of time. Of course, corporate and insurance entities are aware of the amount of money it costs for a lawyer to try a case, and they attempt to extend the trial process, forcing the lawyer’s hand and pockets to dwindle – an almost judicial rope-a-dope. Larger corporations can and do take advantage of young lawyers with limited financial resources.
With more of these funds in place, no longer will attorneys be forced to abandon cases and clients who need services. No longer will clients be denied access to the judicial system. And no longer will the overall community stand by and watch as our young lawyers – one after the other – lose their personal philosophies of judicial equality and commitment to helping the underprivileged in the face of overwhelming resources.
Many readers might be familiar with the idea of a Warrior Fund already. The idea blossomed out of the Warrior Foundation – a service to fallen special-operations soldiers to help provide support and assistance after combat. Lawyers are clearly not soldiers fighting in a war zone, but they are fighting for judicial equality and ultimately democracy. We need more Warrior Funds for young attorneys.
Ultimately, what is important is not how much is donated to the funds, but that as a whole, the legal community should foster commitment to creating more opportunities for contingency-fee litigators.
If Americans are not allowed access to the same level of representation as corporations through contingency, how can our system ever even pretend to offer the opportunity for justice? How can we stand by and watch our young lawyers – those who resemble ourselves in the beginning of our careers – fall under financial pressure and paralyzing debt?
Michael Alder is the Owner/Senior Trial Attorney at AlderLaw PC which created the AlderLaw Warrior Fund to give up to $10,000 per case to young lawyers who have to go up against large insurance companies and other corporations with deep pockets. For more information, click here.