Britain and America use roughly the same judicial system to dispense roughly the same rough justice. There are, however, certain practical and philosophical differences. Brits have a ‘split profession’ – solicitors and barristers – which has the effect of giving consumers one lawyer for the price of two.
Brit-client takes his problem to a solicitor, who doesn’t know the answer. He, in turn, ‘takes advice from counsel’ – i.e., consults a specialist barrister – who doesn’t know the answer, but looks it up in a big book, then tells it to the solicitor, who tells it to the client. Then they both charge the client.
Yank lawyers do not operate in the same way, and hate the idea of dividing the spoils. They contrive to keep most specialist work within the firm ... whether clients want a simple divorce, or plan to sue NASA for third stage burn-out pollution over Missouri.
The most significant thing to know about top-earning American lawyers, is that they do not want to practise. What they want is to jockey for position and end up on the inside track in some great business deal which will make them a quick million. Law school is simply a means to this end. Socially conscious grads bury themselves in civil rights work, or a D.A.’s office. Other high-flyers soon find everyday bread-and-butter work dull and tedious (few thrills in corporate tax law) and secretly wish that they worked in television. They alleviate the boredom by:
1) skipping the small stuff. Delegating nearly everything (your case) to overworked juniors, keeping themselves fresh and alert in case a lucrative ‘class action’ comes along. This is known as striking the mother-lode. Nouveau avocat can smell a class action miles away (i.e., third stage burn-out pollution over Missouri);
2) charging ridiculously inflated fees for services. Jaded Yank-lawyer can artificially arouse his own interest only if his fee runs to six figures;
3) attending frequent American Bar Association conventions, which offer a chance to thrash out with colleagues such ethical and moral dilemmas as which is the best restaurant / shirt-maker in London.
Criminal cases in particular are treated differently on opposite sides of the water. This is because of separate understandings of the vexed question of guilt and innocence. In both countries, the defendant is technically innocent until proven guilty; but there the similarities cease. It Brit-client (about to be tried for a crime) confides to his lawyer that he did it (i.e., ‘I shot Fred’) then counsel is duty-bound to advise him to plead guilty – albeit with mitigating circumstances ... (i.e., ‘I fired in self-defence’). The consideration of guilt or innocence is settled, and purely objective: if the defendant did it, regardless of circumstances, then he / she is technically guilty. (The question of intent may come later.)
Yanks don’t buy that. As far as they’re concerned, guilt is a subjective thing ... as is criminal intent. If there are doubts, or extenuating circumstances, then you’re technically innocent – which is how you should plead. Even it you fired the gun. If you’re guilty, let the Prosecution prove it. That’s what he’s paid for.
In civil matters, it is well-known that Americans love to go to court. They will happily litigate at the drop of a contract-clause. Suing is a national sport, second only to baseball ... and everyone can play, including incarcerated criminals (who have been known to sue their lawyers, the State, and even their victims from the confines of prison). When Yanks run out of reasons to go to court, they invent new ones – like palimony suits.
This is of course costly, but – because of the high level of Ameri-damages – can also be extremely profitable. Just ask the TV producer who collected $300,000 because his name was accidentally dropped from the list of credits at the end of a programme. Compensation in America is exactly that. It makes up for everything.
Not so in Britain, where the most frightful mishaps can be put down to ‘misadventure’ – i.e., accident, where no fault or negligence attaches, and no compensation applies. Even successful suits attract small levels of damages (Brits don’t like to ‘encourager les autres’). Courts will award around £34,000 top whack for an unmitigated disaster with malice aforethought.
This means that there’s not much incentive to sue, grabbit and run, either for Brit-clients or lawyers. No one can afford to take chances. Professional codes of conduct prohibit lawyers from accepting cases on a contingency basis; it is felt that, to do so smacks of ‘profiteering’. This places civil proceedings off-limits for average Brits, and means that, in order to bring an action in a UK court, the client must be:
1) very rich (he can afford to pay up, whatever the outcome);
2) very poor (he’ll get legal aid);
3) a lawyer himself.
In fact, Britain’s Law Society resists every attempt by the profession to drag itself into the twentieth century. Not only do governing legal eagles instinctively detest change, but they are much too clever to endanger a cosy cartel in the name of a fairer deal for consumers. For instance, they would rather hang up their silks than allow commercial advertising – with the risk of competitive pricing of services which is implied. It a Brit-lawyer wishes to covertly advertise for custom, he is hardly flamboyant. He places a ‘change of address’ notice in a suitable trade publication.
Needless to say, Yank lawyers have few restrictions and fewer inhibitions along these lines. They shamelessly chase every opportunity.
‘Find an ambulance’, the saying goes, ‘and the lawyer will be close behind’. This is called creative suing. And every night, American TV viewers are bombarded with ads for legal services:
Hello! Have you suffered an industrial accident? ... Areyousure? ... Do you know anyone else who’s been injured ... Would you like to be injured? Then how about a divorce?
Anyone who rises to the bait can shop around for the lowest prices – then charge it all on MasterCard.