Life Without Lawyers

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Life Without Lawyers:
Liberating Americans From Too Much Law
By Philip K. Howard
221 pages; W.W. Norton & Company

The Gist:
Bernie Madoff and Co. have, for the moment, dislodged attorneys from the doghouse of public opinion. But a world without tort claims and padded billing would still be many people's idea of heaven. Howard, an attorney and author of the best-selling book The Death of Common Sense, chronicles a society in which rules have run amok and litigation looms as a constant threat. Among his egregious examples: a Florida teacher wary of restraining a hysterical child gets the cops to slap handcuffs on the kid instead; a New York City high school prohibits nurses from calling ambulances without the principal's permission; a town slide in Oklahoma is dismantled for liability concerns. "To restore our freedom, we have to purge law from most daily activities," writes Howard. But this seething polemic is less about a society buried in paperwork than one that clings to procedure like a crutch — and has lost its capacity for independent thought in the process.

Highlight Reel:
1. On a Washington, D.C. judge suing his dry cleaner for $54 million for allegedly losing a pair of his pants: "It illustrates again an important truth about human nature—that angry people can go nuts. This in turn illustrates an important point about how to run a system of justice: We can't trust people to be reasonable when they get involved in lawsuits. What was most shocking about this case was not the idiotic claim, however, but that the case was allowed to go on for more than two years—complete with sworn testimony on how the cleaner maintains its laundry tickets and what it really meant by the sign that said SATISFACTION GUARANTEED."

2. On how the threat of litigation impedes our ability to make common-sense decisions: "Straining daily choices through a legal sieve basically kills the human instinct needed to get things done. Law applied to ordinary decisions leads to bad choices, which leads to more law, which leads to worse choices. Pretty soon law is everywhere, separating people from their instincts of right and wrong."

3. On how the U.S. has erred by failing to vest leaders with the authority to make common-sense judgments: "America has never figured out the relationship between authority and freedom. Throughout the history of our country, Americans have believed that authority is the enemy of freedom...authority is not the enemy of freedom, but its protector. Law is not supposed to be a sword against authority. Law is supposed to define the scope of proper authority."

The Lowdown:
Howard's book is a withering critique not of lawyers, but of us: a nation paralyzed by fear, unwilling to assume responsibility, both overly reliant on authority and distrustful of it. Law is wielded as a weapon of intimidation rather than as an instrument of protection — a problem George Will found significant enough to label Life Without Lawyers as "2009's most needed book on public affairs." That doesn't make it a beach read, though. At some point — after the author has quoted Emerson on self-reliance, Mill on utility and Jared Diamond on the rise and fall of civilizations — one realizes the narrative has veered well past the claim that teachers shouldn't be saddled with a $20 million lawsuit every time a student decides to swallow a tack. The patient reader will likely find the intellectual detours worth hanging on for.

The Verdict: Read

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