Those greedy lawyers

There are two basic fee arrangements for legal services: pay by the hour or pay based on a percentage of the judgment you hope to secure. The former is quite costly and is primarily available to those already wealthy enough to slug it out in court. The latter fee arrangement, known as a contingent fee, is paid out only upon the plaintiff's victory and help less wealthy litigants bring socially important lawsuits; it also can lead to a pretty big windfall for the plaintiffs' litigators, whom pay all the up front costs in exchange for that equity interest.

Contingent fees are a double-edged sword. (Quick disclosure: This summer I will be working for a shareholder litigation firm that represents under such a fee arrangement.) The good is that contingent fees are the primary vehicle for most civil rights and mass torts claims. The bad is that, like class-action lawsuits, they can leave individual plaintiffs with a lot less to show for their suffering.

For example, here's a perspective from 2003 on the $30 million in legal fees that plaintiffs' lawyers were set to receive following the Archdiocese of Boston's $85 million settlement for clergy sexual abuse:

"They are raking in millions of dollars and just using victims, propping them up in front of press conferences so other clients will come in and hire them," said John Sacco, a victim of defrocked priest John Geoghan, who was killed in prison. Sacco had settled an earlier case with the archdiocese.

"The money victims will get is really a slap in the face when you look at what it really is after the attorneys' fees," said Sacco, New England coordinator for The Linkup, a national group that brings together those who were sexually abused. "And the lawyers aren't giving anything back." A member of the group Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, however, said that the lawyers were crucial in exposing the extent of the clergy abuse scandal and forcing the Archdiocese of Boston to deal with it.

And that is where this story from The Oregonian comes in:

A man who was molested as a child by a Portland priest -- then secured a $900,000 settlement from the church -- has yet to see a penny more than seven years after the church paid out the money.

In a lawsuit filed this week in Multnomah County Circuit Court, the man alleges that attorneys who represented him in the case managed to claim $877,000 of the settlement, leaving him with no more than $23,000. Yet the man, identified only by his initials, G.B., hasn't seen a check for any amount. ...

The suit reveals how an unusual sequence of events left a victim of childhood sexual abuse with next to nothing. The suit also has upset the legal community, raising questions about the professionalism of at least one of the attorneys involved -- and fueled concerns about potential damage to the public image of attorneys.

That last line is a joke. Attorneys have no positive public image to worry about damaging. Don't believe me? Just think about all the lawyer jokes you know and cross-reference those with surveys showing that lawyers are among the least-trusted professionals.

But Oregonian reporter Aimee Green was right to suggest something odd happened here. Even on the high end, contingent fees are not supposed to exceed about 33 percent plus expenses. In many cases these fees are further subject to professional rules of conduct. So what happened here?

Green reports that the litigant, identified as G.B., might have been a bit too litigious and that it has cost him. (She doesn't actually write that; instead she says he received "bad legal advice.") G.B. fired his first attorney three days before settling his suit with the Archdiocese of Portland. G.B.'s new attorney took a third of that $900,000 settlement and refused to share it with G.B.'s first attorney, who then sued G.B. and won a $372,000 settlement against him. G.B. fought his first attorney every step of the way, running that bill, including the judgment against him, up to $527,000.

Now, I'm not about to blame the victim for what that priest did to him. And there is no question G.B. suffered a second big loss here. But some of the latter loss was self-inflicted.

Victims too are responsible for understanding the law and the consequences that their own actions could have (i.e. firing an attorney who pitched eight one-hit innings and then bringing in a closer who would strike out the side). For some reason, though, Green's piece blames everyone but G.B.

On a related note, also of interest, at least to me, would have been a look at the religious ethics in a case like this. Nothing presumes that the folks representing clergy abuse victims are Catholic or even religious at all. But I wonder would religious motivations are at play and how they are complicated when the true victim is not made whole -- spiritually, physically or monetarily.

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