August 2004

A Law Unto Itself
Why Misusing the Legal System Hurts Us All

By Paul D. Lehrman

“The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”
— Shakespeare, Henry VI

Actually, let's not. The Shakespearean character who utters this line is preparing to throw the kingdom into chaos and sees getting rid of lawyers and other educated people as the first step toward that goal. I think we've got enough chaos in our business already.

Lawyers can be forces for good, of course, especially when they're on your side. What makes lawyers go bad is when people hire them to misuse the law. And those people deserve, well, maybe not to be killed, but it would be nice if they could be put out of business.

One of the primary purposes of a legal system, at least in a free society, is to protect the weak against the strong. Every individual is entitled, so they say, to his or her day in court, and all individuals, so they say, are equal under the law. This means that bullies who beat up on smaller individuals are supposed to be punished, whether they are neighborhood thugs stealing kids' lunch money or large corporations taking advantage of trusting customers, employees or shareholders. And the law also protects bullies from themselves, restraining them from their worst impulses so that their nefarious deeds don't come back to bite them.

We all know it doesn't always work out that way, and too often, justice is the sole property of those with the most resources: money. But sometimes, especially when legal issues are thoroughly examined by the system expressly set up to deal with those issues, the results can be very good indeed. They even allow us to get beyond our own limited vision and open ourselves up to the future.

A case in point is Sony Corporation of America et al. v. Universal City Studios Inc. et al., usually referred to as “The Betamax Case.” For you young 'uns who may not remember this (or you oldsters who have forgotten), in 1976, Walt Disney and Universal Studios sued Sony Corporation over the fact that Sony's newly developed home VCRs could record copyrighted television programs off the air and therefore, Sony, and anyone who used a VCR, was violating the studios' copyright. The studios were positively apoplectic. Their side of the fight was led by a former politician-turned-movie industry lobbyist named Jack Valenti who proclaimed, “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”

The rest of this column, along with 56 more, is now available in The Insider Audio Bathroom Reader, published by Thomson Course Technology PTR.

Copyright ©2006 by Paul D. Lehrman