essays and articles by david g allen


Re: That Hellhole Issue, Phonebook Tells the Story

 

Back when Martin Milner wandered along Route 66 in his Corvette, he could have predicted each town’s crime rate by simply reading the local telephone book.

If the number of clergymen outnumbered lawyers, the crime rate would be low. Conversely, if lawyers outnumbered the clergy, then the crime rate would be high. In the 1950s and 1960s, the ratio of clergy to lawyers almost perfectly correlated to a town’s lawlessness.

The ratio of clergy to lawyers painted a picture of the town’s citizens and their values. People who regularly attend church are apt to follow God’s absolute laws—the Ten Commandments for example. On the other hand, people who flock to law offices often view laws as guidelines, or even suggestions, and hire lawyers to mitigate their circumstances.

In a manner of speaking, Martin Milner could have written a “Route 66” tour guide and included a chapter titled “Judicial Hellholes” based solely on phone book surveys.

If you use this survey method today, you’ll quickly notice that lawyers advertise on phone book covers as well as in the yellow pages. Daytime television advertising could well be called the “cavalcade of trial lawyer ads.”

I will say this, though: melodramatic personal injury lawyer ads do complement the soap opera milieu of afternoon programming.

 The so-called “respectable” law firms advertise just as heavily. They flood trade publications with image ads. On Madison Avenue, image ads are referred to as the silk purse enigma, or the more familiar “put lipstick on the pig.”

The practice of law has been a growth industry ever since the Miranda decision (1966.) To sustain that growth, every aspect of the practice of law has succumbed to relativity and compromise. If a non-lawyer read former West Virginia University basketball coach John Beilein’s contract, he’d say that the coach owed WVU $2.5 million for leaving early. In the hands of skilled attorneys, however, the contract was just a starting point for negotiations (Read: more billable hours.)

The practice of law in West Virginia is a growth industry. Our venue laws encourage growth by allowing tourist litigators to spend their workdays suing in our courtrooms while whitewater rafting or skiing on the weekends.

Innovative ways to use the courts, such as medical monitoring lawsuits, have expanded the realm of the once-stodgy definition of torts. It seems that at one time in our history—perhaps before the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer went to law school—the plaintiff actually had to prove damages. Not so now on this warming globe.

When Roane County jurors returned a $400 million verdict against natural gas companies in January, two things happened. The first was national headlines; West Virginia had finally entered the big leagues of jackpot justice. The second result was that businesses across the state realized that a billion-dollar verdict is soon to happen. After all, $400 million is now a benchmark—the four-minute mile so to speak.

Several people, and that includes a few in the natural gas industry, have told me that the verdict in Tawney et al v. Columbia Natural Resources et al was a long-overdue victory for justice for mineral owners. This sounds romantic when heard in isolation. But the future effect of Tawney is unpredictable when you read it alongside the recent WV Supreme Court of Appeals ruling that a law firm (Schrader Companion & Byrd) can claim as its fee a percentage of future royalties from a mineral lease it negotiated on behalf of its client.

To me, the court’s logic in deciding the Schrader case is just plain Stephen King-scary. The “Langoliers.” Now playing at a law office near you!

A major criticism of West Virginia’s judicial system has been the partisan election of the judiciary. Judges have to be selected in some way. I’d rather see judges elected than trust politicians to appoint them. And that view holds for U. S. Supreme Court justices as well.

By electing judges, especially in a partisan manner, the voting public is exercising a referendum on the judicial system. And this is West Virginia’s downfall. The voters must like the system just the way it is. Otherwise, they’d vote to change it.

Is West Virginia a judicial hellhole? You can’t always judge a book by its cover. But in this case, the phone book would suggest that it is.

David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

"Re: That Hellhole Issue, Phonebook Tells the Story" originally appeared in the May 25, 2007 issue of the West Virginia State Journal and was reprinted in the May 27, 2007 issue of the (Clarksburg WV)  Sunday Exponent-Telegram.

 

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Copyright 1990-2007  David G. Allen