Dear Mr. Schaeffer:
I am a lawyer who recently became engaged to a woman whose father is a doctor. Whenever I visit my fiancé’s parents, all her father talks about is “frivolous lawsuits” and “my goddamn malpractice insurance rates.” This generally lasts about ten minutes until my fiancé’s mother says, “Herman, it’s time for your pill.” Once the pill kicks in, the rest of us are able to finish our dinner, even though all that snoring can get pretty loud.
Here’s my dilemma: When, if ever, should I tell my future father-in-law that I’m a lawyer? For months, I’ve been telling him I’m an unemployed auto mechanic. Since he seems fine with this, I really don’t want to rock the boat.
Signed, Petrified in Peoria
It’s always fun to get a letter dealing with an important topic that’s been “in the news.” Your letter, of course, deals with complaints by the medical profession of skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums, which have reportedly been causing doctors looking for cheaper rates to move from state to state like migrant farm workers. (The only real difference between the two groups, in fact, is that doctors have much bigger TVs, in additional to several TIVOs.) Understandably, doctors are upset about the way their malpractice insurance premiums have been cutting into their “quality of life.” Fearing retaliation, however, they are unable to criticize their insurance companies. So they’ve come up with another plan: blame “greedy trial lawyers.”
You probably think your situation is very dire. But it’s not. In a recent interview in Trial magazine, the former insurance commissioner of Missouri, Jay Angoff, explained that “the industry is cyclical” and “very soon insurance companies will start cutting rates again, just as they did in the late 1980s and mid-1990s.” In other words, it’s going to get better for the cash-strapped doctors very soon.
Do you have to wait for the insurance companies to make the first move? Not necessarily. It could be that your future father-in-law thinks about lawyers the way Jonathan Swift thought about humanity: “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” It’s quite possible, in other words, that your future father-in-law may harbor some generalized love for lawyers in the abstract. You might scoff at this, but it is well known that doctors are some of the most litigious members of our society. I have personally worked on two cases in which I represented a doctor who was suing another doctor. In the first case, I won. In the second, I lost, and the doctor turned around and sued me. So there you go.
Here’s my advice. If you want to be a hero, sit with your future father-in-law in his living room before he’s taken his pill. Find out a little about his enemies. After he opens up to you (you’ll know when his face begins to turn bright red), reveal that you’re a lawyer. If he doesn’t keel over then and there, which would be a shortcut to solving your problem, offer to have a lawsuit prepared against the doctor’s enemies by the next morning. To avoid taxing his household budget more than his insurers are doing already, offer to do the work pro bono.
If you follow this advice very carefully, everyone stands to benefit. Your fiancé will have peace within her family, and you’ll have either a new client or a dead future father-in-law. It’s as simple as that!
Your friend, Evan Schaeffer