80% of the Public Isn't Wrong: Big Law is Overpaid
by Amy Moritz Ridenour
- If 80% of the public holds the same view on an issue, wouldn't you
think the politicians would take notice?
- You'd think so unless campaign contributions or the chance to look
good in front of a camera are involved.
- According to a May 30-June 1, 1998 poll commissioned by the St. Paul
Pioneer-Press, Minnesota Public Radio and Minneapolis's KARE-TV, 80% of
Minnesotans think Big Law is being paid too much for its work on
Minnesota's recently settled tobacco suit.
- Minnesota's lawyers are being paid 7.2% of the over $6 billion
settlement, or $466 million (one of the two plaintiffs in the case, Blue
Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, will receive $469 million barely
more than the lawyers). With 80% of the public thinking this figure is too
high, one wonders what the public thinks of the legal bill in Texas, where
Big Law wants 15% of the $15.3 billion settlement, or Florida, where they
want 25% of $11.3 billion.
- Nationally, under the Senate's tobacco tax bill, Professor Lester
Brickman of Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law estimates that Big
Law will take home about 15% of approximately $206 billion.
- Why should anyone care that several hundred lawyers around the country
will make millions, and, in the cases of perhaps two dozen of them,
billions, from their work on behalf of government in tobacco cases?
- One reason is obvious: any money paid to a lawyer is money not going
to the plaintiff the person or entity (such as the taxpayers) that the
court determines has actually suffered damages.
- Another key reason is that these high legal fees have in some cases
been negotiated by government officials who have taken campaign
contributions from the very same trial lawyers who will benefit from these
government lawsuits. The system works like this: instead of suing tobacco
companies with state lawyers already on the payroll, or with lawyers
retained at an hourly rate, government officials "hire" private attorneys,
offering them a (usually healthy) percentage of the take if the lawsuit is
- Seven states have offered lawyers 25% of the take from tobacco deals.
Four others have given 15%, and five 10%. Still others have agreed to let
the courts (which have awarded 20%-30% in the past) decide lawyers'
- The Florida Attorney General's office approximates the fees sought by
Florida's attorneys as $100,000 per hour. Professor Brickman estimates
that the amount Texas lawyers are seeking averages $92,000 per hour, and
estimates that the Minnesota attorneys are seeking to be paid 16 times
normal hourly rates.
- Big Law says it deserves these high fees because the cases are risky,
but they are not as risky as one might think. In some states, such as
Florida and Maryland, the states changed the state laws after filing suit
- tailoring the law to make it very likely that the states will win in
court. In Minnesota, the judge made it easy on the state by ruling that
the tobacco companies could not present most of their defense. Faced with
nearly certain loss in a case many expected the tobacco companies to win,
the tobacco companies were forced to settle. Nationally, it is no
different: Congress is now debating a law that will settle the cases of 40
states without most of them ever even going to court. The lawyers,
however, will still be paid as though they'd won in court against nearly
- Another reason for citizens to be concerned about astronomical
billion-dollar legal fees is that, in the opinion of many, the tobacco
lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg. There are very few ways for
anyone to become a billionaire, and most of them are a lot harder and a
lot riskier than cozying up to a state official and then suing an industry
on the state's behalf. So if any lawyer becomes a billionaire working for
a state government in a tobacco case, it won't end there. Beer and liquor
companies will be next, or perhaps the coffee and cola industry, or the
fast food and restaurant industry.
- Anyone who thinks these facts are exaggerated should consider:
- The American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse is
arguing that the attention paid to the tobacco companies should now be
focused on the alcohol industry. The office's director, Richard Yoast,
told the Associated Press: "The beer industry is acting more and more like
the tobacco industry. The [Joe Camel ads], you could substitute beer and
it would be the same thing." The alcohol industry has another problem that
may make it an even better target for lawyers than tobacco: state tobacco
taxes are high enough to make tobacco sales a money-maker for the states,
but, according to a study published in the March 1989 edition of the
Journal of the American Medical Association, liquor taxes are not. So
lawsuits by states seeking funds lost due to alcohol use would be on much
firmer ground than those brought on tobacco.
- Caffeine is the "new tobacco" to others. The Nation magazine, in its
April 27 edition, talks about caffeine the way trial lawyers talk about
tobacco: "Caffeine Inc. is raking it in, often targeting teens and
younger kids The major caffeine suppliers to kids have been throwing
millions to advertising and giveaways." The well-publicized Center for
Science in the Public Interest has jumped on the dangers-of-caffeine
bandwagon and is calling upon the Food and Drug Administration to regulate
the caffeine content in coffee, tea, soda and chocolate. Tobacco analysts
will recall that the current round of tobacco bashing in the national
media began with calls during the Clinton Administration's first term for
FDA regulation of tobacco.
- Fast food and restaurant cooking are the new bogeymen to still others.
Yale University researchers have taken the first step toward turning
unhealthy food production and distribution into the nation's next pariah
industry, calling for federal regulation of unhealthy food, federal
subsidies of fruits and vegetables, and punitive excise taxes on high-fat
foods. Professor Kelly D. Brownell, director of Yale's Center for Eating
and Weight Disorders, says the nation is plagued with an "out-of-control
epidemic of obesity and other diseases related to diet, such as diabetes,
heart disease and cancer." He says, "Junk food advertisements should be
regulated, and excise taxes imposed on high-fat foods, just as they are on
tobacco and alcohol." Professor Brownell sets the stage for producers and
vendors of food -- other than fruits and vegetables, of course -- to pay
hundreds of millions to trial lawyers, as tobacco soon will do, telling
the Washington Times, "As a culture, we get upset about Joe Camel, yet we
tolerate our children seeing 10,000 commercials a year that promote foods
that are every bit as unhealthy." The Center for Science in the Public
Interest echoes Brownell's views, with its director, Michael Jacobsen,
observing "It's high time the [restaurant] industry begins to bear some
responsibility for its contribution to obesity, heart disease and
- And why should this pot-of-gold style of lawyering end with tobacco,
liquor, fast food and caffeine? Every American automobile is manufactured
with the ability to go faster than the speed limit. Fast driving
contributes to accidents, and accidents cost governments money for
ambulances, police, and health services for those who don't take care of
their own health insurance needs. Surely, some lawyers somewhere may even
now be approaching a state government official (maybe even one to whom
he's previously given a campaign contribution) with a plan to sue the auto
companies - and keep a hefty percentage of the take for himself.
- Americans already sue too much, even without the prospect of
billion-dollar jackpots. In Garden City, New Jersey, a woman has filed a
palimony suit against her common-law husband for cheating on her after he
took the anti-impotency drug Viagra. She has also said that she may sue
Pfizer, which makes Viagra, for not "training" her common-law husband how
to handle the drug before selling it to him (one wonders what sort of
training Pfizer was expected to provide). The Houston Chronicle has
reported on a lawsuit filed against milk companies by a 61-year-old milk
drinker who has clogged arteries ("[milk] is just as dangerous as
tobacco," says the plaintiff). A beer vendor in San Diego was sued after a
man who drank beer and subsequently went to the restroom saw a woman in
the men's facility and was startled and upset. A water skier in Texas sued
the skipper of the boat that was pulling him after the skier fell and was
injured by his own ski.
- The 80% of the public that thinks Big Law is overpaid is correct: we
should nip abusive lawsuits, and excessive legal fees, in the bud.
- Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy
Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to
- The National Center for Public Policy Research
This is a page in the section entitled Lawyers
Make Billions at Expense of Sick and Dying Smokers in the Web site
entitled Legal Reform Through Transforming the
Discipline of Law into a Science.