How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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Evan or Ted:

I need your advice.

I receive paperwork every 1-2 months
that informs me I'm a member of
some victimized class or other.

What's the best way to opt-out of these?
(I would define 'best' as the way that most
reduces payouts/incentives to the plaintiff's
attorney, at the minimum effort to the person
opt-ing out).

Also, is there a national database, like the do-
not-call list, that I can join to be removed
from future class actions?

Thanks in advance.


Jeff: The class notice you receive will contain instructions for opting-out; simply follow those. Generally speaking, your decision to opt out will not reduce the fees to the lawyers. Although it is theoretically possible that your decision to opt out would affect the fees, it depends on the language of the particular settlement.

I personally wonder why you are so bothered by class notices, which you can just throw in the trash. As for the national database, there's nothing like that to my knowledge.


Thanks Evan.

I don't want to be a party to these actions. In my opinion, they seem more aimed at enriching the lawyers than aiding the class members.

Aren't there market-based approaches to correct these (alleged) abuses?

If a company tries to rip me off, I just change to another vendor. I would support ways to increase transaparency (an eBay like rating system for vendors and products?), so consumers could take matters into their own hands.



If American Express added a dime to your bill each month in finance charges that weren't authorized, would you know it? And if after 5 years someone figured this out, meaning you'd been defrauded of $6.00, would you just say, "No big deal, just $6"? Even though it had made AMEX millions?

Maybe you would. But maybe others wouldn't. And maybe the class action would result in AMEX returning tens of millions to people overall, while you got just $6.00. Wouldn't that be appropriate for your harm?

Why would you resent how much the lawyers got paid?


Good point.

I guess I'd close my Amex account, if I didn't see enough ongoing value to offset the $6. Credit card companies routinely spend $75-100 to acquire a new customer, so closing an account would be a market-based approach with a far higher penalty than the damages I sustained.

As to why I'd care how much the lawyers are paid...ultimately a firms' customers pay these fees through higher prices.

With the Internet and advances in collaborative filtering, there must be better ways to identify and discipline rogue vendors than lawyer-driven class actions.


Well, I guess we could have the government do it. Not very libertarian of you.

Why does it ultimately have to be the firm's customers who pay? Why are you not angry that the CEO doesn't take a pay cut to pay it back?

What's more, if you want the market to work, who says that the firm's customers have to pay increased costs for the product? If one can just as easily go get another credit card (there's no shortage) wouldn't the market keep the price down?

You seem to be excusing wrongdoing on the basis that to stop it MIGHT cost more. Do you advocate eliminating police because it costs us more in taxes?



Why would Jeff get worked-up because CEOs don't take pay cuts to pay for their corporate misdeeds? That scenario has such a slim likelihood of happening that it hardly seems worthy of thought.

Finally, the police are employees of the state, established to protect the public health and safety. Lawyers are not--even though plaintiffs' trial lawyers portray themselves as servants of the public or, at the very least, Robin Hood.

If you feel that lawyers can play an instrumental role in curtailing corporate corruption or abuse then why not let the attorneys general of the various states take on consumer matters, soley?



Why should he get worked up about a wrongdoer paying the other side's attorney's fees? Why is that so surprising?

I realize what police do. However, his argument is purely that it will cost the individual more to have lawyers police the wrongdoing. Will it not cost them more to have the government do so?

Maybe I just don't have the love, or faith in, government that you do. If you want the AG's office in each state to handle these sorts of things, I guess you'll advocate increasing their staff by about 100x what it is today? And paying increased salaries of course? Because the defense will certainly have plenty of well paid advocates and I trust you wouldn't want to hamstring the consumers' side.


Matt, I suspect that Jeff's problem isn't necessarily with a case, like you cite with AmEx where just compensation is paid. But rather, in cases where the prevailing plaintiffs get little or no value while the attorneys get rich. For example,

In Boehr v. Bank of America, in Arizona federal court, [TLPJ] obtained dramatic improvements to a proposed nationwide settlement of credit card overcharge claims that, among other things, would have given virtually no money to the class. Instead, the settlement would have allowed Bank of America to give millions of dollars to five charities – with the bulk of the cash going to the Bank's own "Consumer Education Fund." In response to TLPJ’s objections, the agreement was reformed to provide that the money be distributed directly to the class, where it belonged.

Had I been in the original class, I would indeed have resented the lawyers who made millions (TLPJ fought the attorneys' fees away resulting from the settlement) where as I did not obtain any value. If Blockbuster steals $30 from me, but the settlement has me getting coupons, and the lawyers millions, then indeed I would be resentful. I'd feel that the lawyer did not act as my fiduciary but rather, used my injustice as a way to enrich himself.

I'm not saying this happens all or most of the time. But it happens enough that people like Jeff begin to mistrust the lawyers. If trial lawyers (and all lawyers) did a better job of self-policing, tort reform would not be such a big issue. But since lawyers let misconduct slide, others see it as a clique designed to enrich lawyers at the expense of others (whom lawyers condescendingly refer to as non-lawyers.)



Maybe I missed your point.

Why does a business complaint/rating system (like what eBay does for their buyers/sellers) need to be run by the government? What's more, the primary inventors and users of collaborative filtering are private companies like Amazon.

My complaint with current systems is that they focus exclusively on product reviews(ex. Amazon-free or ConsumerReports-paid service).

Why couldn't a private company extend the concept, and create a site that archives consumer complaints of all types, compute aggregate ratings on vendors, and provide tools to consumers to access them?

In my opinion, this would be a cheaper and faster way to protect consumers and impose a cost for bad behavior. At least for the types of class actions that I receive.


I think you've accurately captured my feelings on the matter.


A business complaint system does nothing to refund the customers their money. If I call you and say I'm selling $20 widgets for $1, and you send me your $1 and I don't send you back your widget, I've suffered no harm. Are you just advocating letting the market correct that? You and the first X number of suckers are just SOL other than letting future customers know they could get screwed?

You're a very forgiving person.

As for your examples, you can always opt out and file your own suit. You say it happens "often enough." Well, how much is that? Do you know how many coupon settlements there are v. ones you might deem justified? Did it ever occur to you that only certain types of cases make the paper, or get publicized? Why is that? Do tort reformers want to tell you about the AMEX case (fictional, obviously but there are similar ones)? Of course not.

Where we fail is in properly publicizing the numerous examples of actual wrongdoing. That you think that those settlements you mention above are the norm is our fault.



That is what I'm advocating, at least in the beginning. A certain number of people get screwed, and then the offending company goes out of business and the individual behind it is tarred for life when their tactics are exposed. Soon the threat of sunlight is enough to prevent bad deeds. If the system is designed well, an individual's and corporation's reputation and past acts will be archived and tracked forever(just as they are in an eBay like system). Most people will be reluctant to deal with anyone that doesn't have a good reputation, or enough transaction data to infer that they do.

Did you ever read The Evolution of Cooperation by Axelrod? Pretty fascinating.

I can't claim to be immune to sensationalistic news pieces on coupon settlements. But my views on class actions were influenced more by the notices I've received. I've been getting more of them in the last 2-3 years. Why?


Did not read it, but I'll check it out.

Well, if you're that forgiving, I guess that's OK. I, for one, am not. When you cheat someone, I think you ought to pay for the harm you cause.

I don't know why you're getting more. Maybe you're more active? Maybe corporate wrongdoing is getting increasingly exposed?

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