Some while back I heard a comment, spoken in regard to the passage of such high-impact national legislation as the health reform law and the Dodd-Frank Act, that “there have been more causes of legal action created in the last six months than in all of recorded history.”
Perhaps an exaggeration, but it’s an undeniable fact that as society becomes more litigious, lawyers must stretch their intellectual capacity to deal with new causes of action all the time. And this doesn’t have to be at the rarified level of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two examples within the past year from my home state of California can illustrate.
In Los Angeles earlier this year, the owner of a Honda Civic hybrid won an unusual Small Claims Court lawsuit against the auto giant. The court commissioner ruled that Honda had misled the Civic owner when it claimed the hybrid could achieve as much as 50 miles per gallon and awarded her $9,867.19 in damages.
The plaintiff’s award was far greater than the damages she would have collected had she signed onto a class action lawsuit settlement over similar claims against Honda, in which Civic owners got as little as $100 after the lawyers’ fees were deducted. Experts are saying this Small Claims Court judgment could transform product liability litigation nationwide, enabling a well-informed plaintiff with a good small firm lawyer to avoid class actions and secure tangible, personal compensation from corporate defendants.
For transport of a different kind, the City Council in Los Angeles, now followed by that in Berkeley, passed the country’s strictest laws allowing bicyclists to file civil suits against people, whether auto drivers or pedestrians, who commit assaults and attacks on them and collect three times damages plus attorneys’ fees. The actionable events are already violations of criminal statutes but are almost never prosecuted as such. The idea behind the legislation is that the potential for high damages will act as a deterrent against cyclist abuse, while the potential for high compensation will make attorneys more likely to take on cyclists as clients.
The point here is not so much the court actions and laws themselves, but the fact that these causes of action affect the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the country. Such people will need lawyers to help them.
Rather than bemoan the economic pressures on the small firm lawyer, we need to realize that the mega law firms with many hundreds or even thousands of lawyers may serve the one percent of the corporate world that worries about the Dodd-Frank Act.
But, there will be a large group of customers who are underserved except for sole practitioners and small firms. There is a lot of work available for those small firms that are flexible enough in their cost structures and nimble enough in their legal analysis to be competitive.
New laws need interpretation; legislators have to justify their existence and continue to write new laws, providing work for lawyers to interpret these laws and advise their clients on how benefit from them.
Clients still look to lawyers when they need help or want to right a wrong. Will you be ready when such clients turn to you for help?
Ed Poll J.D., M.B.A., CMC is the principal of LawBiz Management, a national law firm practice management consultancy based in Venice, Calif. For more information, visit his website, www.LawBiz.com, or email him at EdPoll@LawBiz.com.