How We Hate (And Need) Lawyers

He has been trying to do a win-win business deal, but lawyers on all sides have stalled it for months in their nitpicking search for minor advantages in the event his venture succeeds. (They’re also looking for cover if it doesn’t.)

Once the papers are signed, of course, there’s a complete road map of who gets what and who gets blamed, something he can take to the investment bankers. But my friend does wind up feeling like he’s spending time in a sausage factory and wondering whether he’s the worker or the work product.

Everywhere you turn on the Internet these days, there are lawyers. If you get mad at some big company and put up a “sucks” site, you’ll hear from lawyers. If your kid tries to download some MP3s from his college dorm, you’ll hear from lawyers. If you’ve been checking out porn from your desk at work, more lawyers.

Lawyers are great if you can afford them. They can seize the domain names of small foes and intimidate critics into shutting up. In fact, I’d say lawyers are the key barriers to entry, keeping the masses out of e-commerce and Internet journalism. If you can’t afford them, or don’t understand them, it’s easy to be intimidated by them and to back down from confrontation as a result.

Lawyers, in fact, have kept me from making the step from writer to entrepreneur. I don’t want to have anything to do with them if I can help it. Neither do most people.

It’s not just me everyone should be scared of lawyers. Lawyers have done more to damage Microsoft’s market position lawyers from both sides than any other factor.

Bill Gates should consider himself lucky because civil lawyers aren’t the most fearsome lawyers. That honor, of course, goes to criminal lawyers, especially those working for the state. The mayor of my fine city went on a tirade yesterday about the local U.S. attorney. He didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

Deciding how the government chooses to deploy its lawyers is, of course, the function of politics. Our rights to do business, to speak, or to read what we want are circumscribed by political decisions that send government lawyers after those we decide should go to jail.

The unfortunate fact is that we the people don’t believe absolutely in free speech either. Our Congress passed the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and its successor, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). It was lawyers – judges who were not elected by the people – who declared these laws unconstitutional.

My point today is that judges can change their minds, higher courts can overrule lower courts, and we can always get new judges. Millions do want people thrown in jail for what most of us on the Internet consider free speech, and if they succeed, they will have a host of new lawyers on their side.

What’s true in the case of pornography, moreover, is also true in every other area. Our rights on this medium are only as safe as our willingness to protect ourselves, if necessary, with lawyers (as much as I hate them).

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