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There is no better perspective from which to write about the fairness of the American legal system than mine: a barefoot American immigrant and law student, sitting in a taqueria in Mexico. Alvaro fishes off the same beach I’m sleeping on. He’s astounded that every American lawyer undergoes seven years of study. “You must know everything about justice,” he says. What I do know is the difference between doing good with one’s knowledge of the law and being good at employing that knowledge for the purposes of evil — the difference between a system which facilitates justice, and one which will dole it out for the right price. Justice is expensive, for government and citizen alike. Those who cannot afford justice pay the highest price of all; they suffer the cost of living in a society that does not invest in justice sufficiently enough to make it just. You get what you pay for. Nearly all legal problems and solutions share the birthplace of all lawyers, both good and evil: law school. Here pivotal career choices and value judgments are being made by future lawyers who will grow powerful and rich on the profits of expensive justice. Under the Learned Hand Test (written by Justice Hand, and not some corporate villain), companies only ought to invest in making their product safer if doing so would save more money than settling the civil suits sparked by selling unsafe products. Why spend $10 making a widget safer when you could settle for $5? The average law student doesn’t support such a sickening policy — until he’s offered $160,000 his first year out to save Firestone’s money. Disintegrating tire victims shouldn’t receive the recovery they cannot afford to fight for. You get what justice you can afford. Meanwhile, the lawyers working in the public interest cannot afford to fight with the same resources for those who cannot afford justice in the first place. The best-paying public interest jobs start at $40,000, less than a fourth of what the corporations they frequently battle can afford to pay. More seductive than Eden’s sinuous snake are those high salaries, forked-tongue temptations racing their apple-red BMWs past the people’s Volkswagens. That’s the first problem we embryonic attorneys face: money. We suffered through three years of fear and loathing. Now we want to buy back our lost pleasure. Now that we can afford it. Yet jobs pay more than money. Working conditions are especially decisive in attracting lawyers. In addition to offering paltry paychecks, public interest jobs are rich in problems. Even a lawyer willing to forego a monster salary, willing to settle for his own and his co-workers’ respect, must yet learn to digest crow, for he will eat it by the flock. Public interest lawyers are sold primarily on the satisfaction of their work. They drive home, knowing that they did the world — and themselves — good. Yet when this fails, what is left for our dedicated public advocate? The prosecutor who sought to punish murderers is made to dole out 12 years to a first-time crack user, while his cocaine-cutting corporate counterparts never seem to get caught. The public defender who sought to trust his clients’ fate to a constitutionally guaranteed trial is forced to plea-bargain 90 percent of his cases due to an overwhelmed and overflowing court system. The woman’s rights attorney is helpless even, and especially, after a successful conviction in the face of socially expected recidivism among rapists and wife-beaters. The environmental lawyer agonizes in frustration while what is ostensibly his government — but to him a corporate marionette — gives away our land, sea and air, jerking with every pecuniary tug. If public interest attorneys are J.D.s with a seraphic social conscience, they, through banging their heads against the walled trenches every day, are forced to seek refuge from the world they sought to save. The final problem in attracting excellent budding attorneys to the public interest field is respect. Lawyers are perhaps the most competitive people on Earth. And we thrive on competing against other people just like us: other lawyers. We need to think that, like Jason Giambi, even if we’re playing for a low-budget team, we can still be respected as stars. But public interest lawyers are overworked, fighting with fewer resources than their big-firm counterparts. Precisely because our public interest hero willingly stomachs the throes and woes of his job is the light cast on him an unflattering one. There’s a word misused on the public interest attorney: sucker. The belief is that anyone who puts himself through such a career either is a sucker, or must not be very good. Either possibility amounts to little respect. If they are not made rich in dollars, let them be rich in respect. Public interest lawyers are richly investing in society. Let us richly invest in them. Raising salaries and lightening the burden on our inundated courts are both in order, but we have not done so. We can somehow afford to stomach a mangled legal system that satisfies only the wealthy few who either exploit our courts or don’t need them. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just that the rich can afford a lot more Pepto-Bismol than can I. Rich lawyers and their rich clients can afford to remedy these ills, but they lack the desire and incentive to do so — it is not they who lack adequate legal resources and services. The current plague infesting our legal system calls for a fairer distribution of resources as well as a change of attitude. If we can’t afford to pay more money, we can afford to pay more respect with a rich heart. I’m not talking about the unequal distribution of parks or benches. Adequate legal representation is not just a desired goal, but a fundamental right, one which ought not be affected by relative wealth. This is the “everything I know” about investing more in justice: We cannot afford not to. Poor and rich have an equal ability to vote; having equal legal services is just as fundamental and crucial to our society. Life may not be fair. But our system of justice should be. Indeed, we have all heard that ours is a society “of laws, not men.” Now, we are a society that serves rich men, not law. Mitch Artman, a University of California Hastings College of Law 1L, plans on beginning his own firm called “Anti-Shysters.” He likes law school because being around law students makes him remember to follow his dream. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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