The Most Infuriating Paragraph I Have Ever Read

The most infuriating paragraph I have ever read was written by a law professor named Paul Campos in 2012. It goes like this:

You have to be pretty rich in this country before you start thinking of legal services as necessities rather than luxuries. Another thought experiment: how much money have you, dear reader, ever spent on legal services? If you are broadly speaking middle class the answer is more probably than not “nothing.”  This is why lawyers who don’t work for rich people or corporations or the government are slowly or not so slowly going broke: because ordinary people, let alone poor ones, generally don’t employ professional legal services except in very limited circumstances (some but not most divorces, bankruptcies, arrests for minor but not too minor crimes. principally DUI). If the people who control entry into the New York bar are so concerned about helping poor people, it would be far better to simply require members of the bar to give poor people money, rather than offering them free legal services, which most poor people at most times will find, in comparison to various far more pressing needs — food, shelter, clothes, transportation, medical care etc. — about as useful as an annotated copy of Finnegans Wake.

Now look, you can perfectly reasonably argue that free legal services are an inefficient means of helping the poor, that there would be vastly greater benefits to mandating that lawyers give money to the poor for those more essential things than give time providing legal services. Perfectly debatable. That part of Campos’s argument is not the reason this is the most infuriating paragraph I have ever read. No, it’s infuriating because what you cannot argue is that legal services are not useful to poor people. Paul Campos has no clue what he’s talking about.

There are hundreds of stages in the lives of poor people where a lawyer would be extremely helpful indeed, and where the fact that one isn’t available causes harm to people’s lives. Poor criminal defendants are given hardly any representation before being thrown in prison for decades. Employers illegally steal employees’ wages that they cannot get back because they don’t have the resources to pursue a legal claim. People are foreclosed upon and evicted without any real negotiation and without ever making valid legal defenses. Landlords leave places in horrible conditions in violations of rental codes, and people don’t know how to get remedies. The elderly are abused and neglected and robbed. Children are expelled from school for minor infractions, or taken from their parents, or sent to detention facilities. Debt collectors harass people over charges that they don’t actually owe. People are beaten by the police, who seize their possessions and refuse to return them. Landlords illegally discriminate against Section 8 tenants and families, and employers discriminate against minority applicants, with none having any way to enforce their legal claims.

There are thousands of cases where poor people need advocates or negotiators, because the enforcement of their rights takes specialized knowledge and a lot of time. Legal services organizations and public defenders in this country are almost universally swamped with work; I have never met a single lawyer serving poor people pro bono who finds themselves lacking work. Paul Campos could not be more wrong, as there is a vast unmet demand for free legal services.

It’s striking, though, that this extremely obvious fact can seem so non-obvious to Campos. How could he be so oblivious? But note the lifestyle he describes, the one where legal services are rarely needed. It’s the lifestyle of the upper middle class, the lifestyle of law professors like Campos. It rings true for me, too; I’ve never needed a lawyer either. But Campos should consider the possibility that not all lives are like his own. He and I are fine without lawyers, because we are powerful; our wealth and status and training give us excellent negotiating power with landlords and creditors and judges. Similarly, I don’t ever have to feel afraid of cops; cops have always treated me fine. But life isn’t like that for everyone, and legal services are one of the few, imperfect ways that the balance of power can be slightly evened out between poor people and the swarm of authoritarian institutions that are trying to screw them out of their money and freedom at every turn.