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Myth: All lawyers are just profiteers

Myth: All lawyers are just profiteers

Photographer:Fotograaf: Bas van Zelst

Myth busters

Flashy guys who work on the Zuidas, live in luxury penthouses and tear around in the latest Teslas and Jaguars – and all at the expense of ‘the ordinary man’ who they laughingly charge exorbitant hourly rates. This image of lawyers appears to be fairly persistent. But it has very little to do with reality, says Bas van Zelst, professor of Dispute Resolution and Arbitration.

“Firstly lawyers, even on the Zuidas, are not as fabulously rich as you might think. Those hourly rates include the cost of housing, support staff, et cetera. What is left over is limited. Also, the customers served by these offices, are large companies that can assess whether the work is worth the cost.” So, it's not all that bad and this group is also an exception, says Van Zelst. “Most lawyer’s offices are one-man bands or consist of 2 to 5 lawyers, who do not have high rents and therefore charge lower hourly rates. I wouldn't want to call them profiteers.”

In fact, the opposite applies to a large group of lawyers: they earn less than they actually should. This concerns the legal aid centres, where lawyers are assigned to subsidised cases. The government pays them when clients can't pay the expenses themselves. In the Netherlands, people are entitled to this – depending on their income – in criminal cases, but also in the case of a divorce, asylum assistance or in the case of a tenancy conflict.

“The government itself believes that these lawyers – approximately half of the 17,500 that we have in the Netherlands – should earn 43 thousand euro yearly, equal to a civil servant in income bracket 12. But in practice, many of them earn a third less. Carrie Jansen, one of the legal aid figureheads, recently reported that she has 120 cases each year, works 60 hours a week, and never earns more than 2,500 euro a month.” This works out as an annual income of 30 thousand euro.

An explanation for the fact that lawyers offering legal aid earn less than is recommended by government, is because the fee is determined on the basis of a twenty-year-old points system. “You are paid per point. However, law has become many times more complicated in recent years. It takes much more time to draw up a letter or document relating to a case or to prepare a defence than the points that are attributed to it.” That makes it less attractive for lawyers to choose to work in legal aid. “We ask these people to invest in order to provide legal assistance to others. This is an intolerable situation.”

Vulnerable people in society will ultimately suffer the consequences. “Soon there will be no lawyers available for people who cannot afford assistance. This is a serious problem. Legal issues are complicated, you need help. This is not a luxury, but a basic right.”

The Van der Meer committee, which recently completed a study on the matter, arrived at the same conclusion as Van Zelst. It advises the government to invest an additional 125 million euro annually (on top of the present budget of 270 million) and to review the points system. “A few years ago, legal aid was almost abolished, but the Upper Chamber intervened. One may think: ‘I will just hold on to those millions,’ but without legal aid people will only end up in deeper trouble. This eventually costs more money.”

According to Van Zelst, other solutions, such as raising the contribution paid by those who make use of legal aid or allowing lawyers to take on more cases for people who can afford to pay as a means to compensate, don’t work. “The compulsory contribution has already been increased by 100 euro to 340 euro some years ago, with an optional increase to 900 euro. These are serious amounts. Compensating sounds great, but law has become more and more specialised. An asylum rights lawyer, for example, has no paying clients. Should he or she do some divorce cases as a top-up? It would mean moving outside one’s field of specialisation, which would be no good to anyone.”

On the other hand, Van Zelst believes that employing mediators on a larger scale could help, for example in divorce cases. “Then you only need a single lawyer, instead of two.” But the problem doesn't disappear with this solution. “Having your case heard by a judge should always be possible for everyone, just like being able to defend yourself against the government.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

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