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Monday, November 14, 2011

Ode to lawyers


Lawyers are geniuses, every one of them. Even the worst of the bunch is smarter than the average citizen. Not because they score high on IQ tests. Not because they have more or better firing neurons in their brains. Not because they can throw around Latin phrases. No, they are smart because they bothered to learn the rules of the game we’re playing.
Think about it. Society has rules, written and unwritten, but the only ones that can land you in jail are the written ones. Laws. They can punish you. They can also reward you, via a little something called a “civil judgment.” This is a process by which you can sue someone (even if they don’t deserve it) and get awarded a ton of money (even if you don’t deserve it), so long as your lawyer is better than the other guy’s. Laws are important things, not because they are inherently valuable, but because they are valuable to our well-being. Break one, your life is ruined. Catch someone else breaking one, you might strike it rich.
Lawyers understand this. It’s like we’re all playing Monopoly, but they're the only ones that have bothered to read the rulebook. If we’re not sure whether we can buy Park Place or not, we have to check with one of them, and pay them for the privilege of their answer. Under a system like that, they don’t even have to be playing to eventually win, or at least make out very, very well.
None of this is to say that lawyers are evil. In spite of their dire reputation, they are as good or bad as any other batch of humans. But the good lawyers, the ones with an “LG” beside their alignment, know that the best way to make radical change is to know the system you’re trying to change. And the evil ones, the ol’ “LE” set, know that the man who profits the most is the one who understands the fine print.
The problem is that the old maxim about power corrupting is absolutely true. Given enough power and enough time, everyone cracks. Mother Teresa herself would have been a villain if she’d lived to be a thousand. It’s inevitable. Lawyers have the power, because they understand. They get it. They know the rules. In a society that styles itself civilized, its our rules that define, empower, and limit us. A lawyer is a magician, and the laws are mana. Without them, he’s powerless, but with them... oh, the world is his oyster. So how do any of them resist corruption?
It depends on how pure their motives at the start, I suppose. That’s why Momma Teresa lasted for 87 years: she started out pretty pure. If you’re more morally flexible, maybe you’ll only last a handful of months before you’re rubbing your hands, cackling in glee at the thought of all the lives you can control. The end is inevitable, it just remains to be seen if you die before evil takes you over.
Money doesn’t help matters. If a billionaire came up to you and said “I’ll pay you 400 dollars an hour to build me a house,” you’d be an idiot not to leap at the chance. If the offer came with no further provisions—timelines, size of house, location—wouldn’t you build the biggest freaking house you could? A mansion that makes the Vatican look like the Unibomber’s shack? Why not, right? They have the money. Who cares if it takes you the rest of your life to finish the thing? You’re getting 400 bucks an hour to saw wood and hammer nails! Talk about a living.
Contrast that with the same offer being made—you decide the sort of house to build—but the pay scale changes to 100 grand for the entire job. Now suddenly that shack idea sounds pretty good. You could bang that out in a weekend and be $100 000 richer. Woohoo!
In both cases, you may have to prove some sort of “good intentions” issue. You can’t make the $400/hour wage if you’re just sitting about thinking about the house, and you can’t collect the hundred grand pay-off if you build something with four walls and no roof. Either way, the temptation is to do the least you can to make the most. Even if you’re a saint and do a great job with no intention of screwing your employer, get offered that deal enough times, and you’ll cave.
Whether paid by the case or paid by the hour, a lawyer has to face that temptation all the time. A lot of professions do, granted, but lawyers are pre-set to bend to temptation. They know the rules. They are trained to know the rules. A lot of times their careers depend on their ability to massage those rules. So they’ll know how far they can push it while still maintaining their reputation and not getting into any trouble. They know how to make a case run long or how to cut it short.
They have the power. Believe it. If you're not scared, you should be.
(Insert evil laugh here.)

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