Big Cities Have a Glut of Lawyers While Small Towns Suffer

Everybody knows the Shakespeare quote, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." It's the stuff of T-shirts. But how many people know what it was about?

In Henry VI, Dick the Butcher proposes killing all of England's lawyers as the first step toward accomplishing the treasonous plot of Jack Cade to overthrow the rule of law and set himself up as a communist demagogue.

Hmm. Maybe the back of the T-shirts should say, "... or not."

Fascinating story in today's New York Times about something I sure didn't know we had in this country -- a lawyer shortage. Last time I heard, the law schools were still dumping lawyers off the assembly line faster than DeVry cranks out left-handed jet mechanics, producing a national glut of loan-burdened law school graduates working as baristas, rafting guides and, jeez, I don't know, I've even heard of law school graduates reduced to journalism.

But that's not exactly what today's story in the Times is about. They're talking about states where all the lawyers are piled up in big cities while people in rural areas can't scare one up with a stick. The story cites Texas as a major example, with 83 percent of lawyers concentrated in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio while some rural areas lack any lawyer at all within a 100 miles.

Is that a bad thing? If you only go by the front side of the T-shirt, you might assume people in rural areas should lead better less stressful lives for their lack of lawyers. And then we have this whole tort reform culture in Texas by which large corporations have convinced us that we little people are burdened by a surplus of constitutional rights and need to give some of ours away to them.

The New York Times story points out that sooner or later even the most mellow and sweet-tempered farmer will need to get a will probated or protect himself from the debts of his ne'er-do-well twice-removed cousin with the same name. Sometimes you just need a lawyer.

South Dakota has passed a law paying lawyers an annual subsidy to live in lawyer-deprived areas, based on the national subsidy for doctors who agree to locate in under-served areas. Here in Texas we have a student loan repayment program for doctors who go to the boondocks. What about using tax money to steer lawyers to the boonies, as well? My own leanings have less to do with probate than the crucial role lawyers play in small communities just by being there. I'm thinking of the informal gathering of the powers-that-be that takes place at least once a week somewhere in every small town, whether they're sipping coffee around the back table at the Dairy Queen or standing in the parking lot at Brookshire's.

In small communities -- probably in big cities, as well -- lawyers are the only people in the ebb and flow of everyday American life trained to think philosophically, by which I mean systematically, rigorously and in the abstract. Everybody else thinks black-hats and white-hats, bad guys and good. The good guys are us. The bad guys are those other guys. It's an old reporter trick for figuring out a small town quickly: go to the lawyers first. They're the only ones who have a mental map of the community in which power and contending interests can be laid out in the abstract.

They can lay it out for you: These people over here make their money this way, and they come from this background. Therefore they view the strike at the bow and arrow factory thusly. Those people over there make their money this other way and come from this other background, so they see it this other way.

In the informal meetings where the powers-that-be decide what's going to go down in town that week, it's only the lawyer who can frame a conflict in the abstract and within the rule of law. He or she knows how to lay out everybody's position on the power grid, affording a certain amount of legitimacy and a few feet of clay to all sides. I would even argue that lawyers are the essential glue holding us all together in this unwieldy framework of democracy and the rule of law that we call America.

That's why there are so many of them in legislative bodies. They're good at it. It's not that they know a whole bunch of laws from law school. They know how to view human conflict in the abstract and bring about productive compromise within the law while everybody else is still calling each other Nazis and whores.

Are there lawyers who goad people into combat when they shouldn't? Sure, just as there are lawyers who won't fight when they should. We have Catholic priests who are too morally rigid, and then ... you see my point. The proper question is the role most of them play.

The idea of rural communities without lawyers -- or big communities, for that matter -- is a frightening one. In the real world, small town life is no more free from conflict than life in the big city. Humans collide, no matter where you put them.

Take all the lawyers out of the picture, and sooner or later the owner of the Western Auto franchise and the owner of the John Deere dealership will settle their differences dead drunk with baseball bats. Life is better with lawyers, because life isn't always all that great -- anywhere, everywhere, ever.

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