The Rule of Lawyers: How the New Litigation Elite Threatens America's Rule of Law

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The Rule of Lawyers: How the New Litigation Elite Threatens America's Rule of Law By Walter K. Olson Truman Talley Books/St. Martin's Griffin * 2003/2004 * 341 pages * $25.95 hardcover; $14.95 paperback

Know any good lawyer jokes? They're quite abundant and often tasteless, reflecting the widespread opinion that the legal profession is composed mostly of unethical rogues who say anything and do anything to squeeze money out of people. It certainly is not true that the entire legal profession consists of scoundrels practicing what amounts to legalized extortion, but those lawyers who do, deserve all the opprobrium of the nasty jokes-and far more.

It is that rogue element of the legal profession that draws Walter Olson's fire in The Rule of Lawyers. Oison, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has come to specialize in the predations of tort lawyers. he previously wrote The Litigation Explosion and maintains the website Olson writes here about the most egregious and damaging instances of litigation run amuck and how the plaintiffs' bar uses its enormous political muscle to prevent any sensible change. There is plenty of material here for dozens of lawyer jokes, but reading the book won't bring any smiles, except at the author's sardonic wit.

Consider the shameless attempts (usually successful) at extorting money from companies that had nothing to do with the injuries that the lawyers' clients claim to have suffered. In the frenzy of asbestos suits, for example, the lawyers went after firms that hadn't had any connection with the production or sale of the asbestos that might have caused illness in workers. How could that be? Because the defendant companies had acquired firms that had at one time sold products containing asbestos. Olson cites the case of Crown Cork and Seal, which in 1963 had acquired a smaller firm that made, among other things, a line of asbestos insulation. Crown sold off that line three months later, but that was enough exposure to trigger a swarm of suits years later. Crown was nearly bankrupted by hundreds of millions in damages as lawyers went almost to the bottom of the firm's pockets.

If the trial bar does not care about actual fault, it is equally unconcerned with actual injury. In their eagerness to sue on behalf of some class of "victims," lawyers often recruit individuals whose injury or illness is speculative or imaginary. A jarring example is a suit against Toshiba for $2.1 billion over a minor malfunction that might occur in one of its laptop computers. No Toshiba owner had complained about it, but no matter. …