Sunday, January 21, 1996
Legal system could stand major surgery

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Item: Attorney for the Ku Klux Klan, Scott Greenwood, wants the city (meaning you and me) to pay for the time he spent fighting to put the Klan's cross on Fountain Square. The tab is more than $100,000.

Item: Money magazine says President and Mrs. Clinton owe more than $2 million in unpaid legal bills from Whitewater, Travelgate and the Paula Jones sex--harassment case.

Item: ''O.J. Simpson, the interview'' went on sale this week for $29.95. Profits will be used, in part, to defray the nightmarish million-dollar legal fees of his dream team.

Item: Former Cincinnati police Officer Claudia Vercellotti, cleared Wednesday of criminal charges, said, ''The prosecutors should not feel like they've lost. They've taken a year of my life, they've taken my job, they've taken my integrity and my faith.'' And money. Her attorney, Marc Mezibov, says her bill for his firm's services could be as much as $75,000.

Back when the White House was up to its elbows in health care reform, I thought they had grabbed the wrong end of the stick.

Instead of government arranging for all of us to get affordable, mediocre medical care from doctors who would become more or less government employees, carefully supervised by professional insurance adjusters, I thought they should arrange for managed legal care.

Health care, I suspect, would instantly be cheaper. As would the cost of doing business.

Even better, they could demand universal legal coverage.

This would guarantee every American the right to have a lawyer any time we need one. Or even when we just want one. If lawyers were free or even cheaper, maybe we'd all feel a lot better about using their services when it's not an emergency. Kind of legal wellness.

The attorneys would get paid only what the government (or the insurance company) thinks is fair, and they would have to justify any depositions they take or any briefs they file to a qualified insurance adjuster, who also would closely monitor their billable hours.

If the lawyer devotes too many hours to, say, a simple personal injury claim, the lawyer would only get paid for the average number of hours the government or insurance company thinks should be devoted to such routine misfortunes.

No more attorney-client secrets

Of course, we'd have to do away with attorney-client privilege because the government would need to paw through the lawyers' files periodically to ensure they are performing their duties according to approved guidelines.

They would not be allowed to exclude certain high-risk customers, such as serial killers or physicians.

I still think this is a great idea.

In fact, when Steve Forbes, Phil Gramm and Jack Kemp get finished with their ''my tax is flatter than your tax'' discussion, I think they should get to work on this. It has distinct elements of supply-side economics, too. While the nation's law schools continue to churn out lawyers, if we continue to sit on the shoulders of physicians, my prediction is that fewer and fewer smart kids will want to be doctors.

So, there will be a lot of bright students who will instead choose the legal profession.

The more lawyers out there trying to make a living, the more lawsuits there will be. And if all the lawyers do their part, pretty soon the insurance companies will be demanding some sort of reform.

The last thing the insurance companies want to do is to squander your premium money on you.

I am serious about this. Legal costs are eating us up alive. Next time you see your doctor, ask her about malpractice premiums. Ask a physician you trust (or who trusts you) how many medical decisions are made with a courtroom instead of an operating room in mind.

I was seriously sick once and seriously sued once. Getting sued was a lot worse. The outcome was more uncertain, it was more expensive and it was a lot scarier.