Review: Life Without Lawyers, by Philip K. Howard

Life Without Lawyers, by Philip K. Howard. New York: Norton and Company, 2009. 221 pp. $24.95 (cloth).


A political consensus is forming around the ideas of attorney and author Philip K. Howard. Beginning in 1990 with The Death of Common Sense and continuing through scores of articles and the work of his organization, Common Good, Howard has depicted an American legal system run wild, and he has advanced a thesis about what must be done. Political figures from Al Gore to Newt Gingrich praise his work. Self-proclaimed pragmatist Michael Bloomberg raves that Howard “offers big-picture ideas for how we can solve entrenched problems.” In a prepublication review, George Will announced that Howard’s latest book, Life Without Lawyers: Liberating Americans From Too Much Law, “surely will be 2009’s most-needed book on public affairs.”

The bulk of Life Without Lawyers is an indictment of American law, covering everything from public schools to administrative regulations to civil lawsuits. As in his earlier books, Howard describes a series of nightmare scenarios drawn partly from his own experience as a practicing attorney and partly from other sources. For example, he tells the story of a family-owned dry cleaning business in Washington, D.C. that was sued for $54 million because of a lost pair of pants. The plaintiff calculated his damages based on a $1,500 consumer fraud penalty multiplied several times over in addition to $15,000 per weekend for a rental car to take his laundry to a more reliable establishment, $542,000 for his own time in pursuing the matter, and $500,000 for mental anguish. The suit was not dismissed but was allowed to linger for two years, costing the business owners more than $100,000 in legal fees (p. 72). . . .

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