As far as I'm concerned, the Government owes me a tax refund. It's not because I overpaid my taxes this year. It's because for the second time in my life, I've been forced to hand over money for something that wasn't my fault at all. In the process, I've learned my lesson. I should have been a lawyer.
My most recent mistake was that of owning a car in San Francisco. One sunny afternoon in February, I drove up from Palo Alto for a business meeting, parked, and returned to my space an hour later thinking that I had lost my mind. The problem was not that my own car was missing. It was that every car on the street was missing.
With the nearest informative sign lodged in the middle of a tree, what I hadn't known was that from 3:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M., my parking spot and the others alongside it became a full-fledged traffic lane. What I had seen when I consulted the nearby signpost was a second sign telling me not to park between 2:00 A.M. and 6:00 A.M. The first was above it, right behind a dense cluster of leaves and branches. At 3:08 P.M. I left my car, deposited several dollars in quarters in the digital, time-aware, restriction-aware parking meter -- which happily accepted my money -- and went on my way.
My debut into the world of automobile towing was brutal and swift. I learned that the City of San Francisco had granted a monopoly to one company, AutoReturn, Inc., for car storage, allowing that company to set the supposed market rate for its services. My car was impounded for less than twenty minutes, and I spent about ten of those minutes running across the city to retrieve it. Effectively, the company's non-negotiable rate was $720 per hour. Not surprisingly, two other unlucky people trying to retrieve their cars couldn't afford the fee -- and they had yet to accrue the additional charge for leaving the car impounded overnight. One of them asked me for assistance, probably because I was a Caucasian male wearing a polo shirt and speaking with the aggressive tone that you might usually expect from a lawyer.
I wish I had been a lawyer on that day, because generally speaking, it's a good thing to be in the United States of America. Much like towing companies, your hourly rates are unregulated. $720 per hour is actually a realistic rate for a partner at a respectable law firm. The attorney charging it may or may not actually know something, but it doesn't matter -- the time spent figuring that out is billable. Consequently, people know not to mess around with lawyers, which is why that day I did my best to give the impression that I was one (though I never claimed to be, of course).
Unfortunately for me, impressions weren't enough. After driving home, as a mere citizen I protested my $60 ticket and $240 towing fee with two separate divisions of the Municipal Transportation Agency, the City Attorney of San Francisco, and finally an assistant to the Mayor. My claims were repeatedly denied. I was informed that my photographs had been taken from "too high an angle," and that according to the MTA, I had actually parked somewhere other than the spot I referenced in my protest. I went back to take new photographs showing the exact same problem from a lower angle, and then noticed that the police officer had written the wrong address on my ticket, suggesting that I had parked on the opposite side of the nearest intersection. A perception of governmental infallibility turned the ticketing officer's problem into my problem.
Not soon after, a lawyer I know received a speeding ticket. He actually had been speeding, and in a school zone at that. Nonetheless, he was able to point out a minor technicality in traffic law that exempts school zones surrounded by fences from lower speed limits. A photograph of the fence in question (from a high angle, as he is quite tall) along with a day's worth of work writing a strongly worded letter ("That's $5,000 in billable hours!" he told me) was all that he needed to get the ticket dismissed.
If I were a lawyer, I'd sue the City of San Francisco. I'd sue anyone necessary in order to get what is rightfully mine back. Yet the fact remains that I'm not a lawyer, and even though I'm capable of thinking, acting, and writing like one -- I could still file a lawsuit, after all -- our society favors a select group of people who by and large abuse their power to keep themselves within, but effectively above, the law. For unless you devote your life to the intricate art of working the legal system, the costs of even coming into contact with it are prohibitive. The filing fees alone in my case would probably be more than combined the value of my ticket and towing fees, let alone the cost of a lawyer's time.
This issue was best illustrated to me when I inadvertently amassed many thousands of dollars worth of criminal defense legal fees only a few years ago. My supposed crime was finding a problem in a federal computer system through legitimate means, and then telling the agency in question about the glitch. I was summoned to Washington, D.C., advised by lawyers that I needed a lawyer, and eventually interrogated by a government lawyer. As I provided the six federal agents and U.S. Attorney with expert computer security advice, my lawyer sitting silent beside me the entire time, I calculated my own hourly rate. It amounted to something around negative $2,500 per hour. My lawyer sent me her bill shortly thereafter. In return for assisting taxpayers, I had the honor of paying a lawyer.
I don't have a problem paying for professional services. Starting with babysitting, I have charged friends, family members and clients for services since I was eleven years old. I do have a problem paying for lawyers because they have rarely provided me the services promised, or any legal services at all. Aside from silent but expensive lawyers, I've had double-billing lawyers, lawyers who charged me to make $90,000 errors, lawyers who have acted on my behalf without my permission, lawyers who billed me for the phrase "I don't know," and lawyers who have refused to pay my bills even after I paid theirs. The aggregate efforts of all of the lawyers I have hired have yielded more dishonest behavior than the issues I was hoping to address with their help.
The notion that the law should be more accessible to a certain class of citizen seems to directly contradict the crucial idea that "all men are created equal." So watch out: if I ever perfect my lawyer act (because at this point I'd never actually want to be one), I'm coming for you, City of San Francisco and AutoReturn, Inc. As for the actual lawyers? Don't worry. You're next.
Aaron Greenspan is the author of the forthcoming Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.