This week you find me in penitent mood. Years ago, when the world was young, this page campaigned vigorously, and at a length that left readers cross-eyed with tedium, for lawyers to advertise.
In those days, the legal profession quietly luxuriated behind a wall of restrictive practices topped by a barbed-wire fee structure that bore the stamp of a cartel. A cold douche of advertising, I reasoned, would awaken the spirit of competition and stimulate a keen awareness of commercial reality among the forensic brethren.
Alas, the advent of legal advertising came to pass, but the consequences were not as foreseen. Not even the most hard-nosed cynic nor jaundiced judge of human nature could have imagined the pent-up well of venality and greed that lay beneath the calm surface of the legal world, waiting to erupt the moment restraints on commercialism were released.
True, the change in the law permitting lawyers to offer similar terms to stud farms – instead of no-foal, no-fee read no-fat compensation cheque, no-fee – played its part in revealing the arse-end of a profession that had hitherto displayed only a stern and slightly forbidding face. But advertising was mainly to blame. We now know that when the professions are allowed to advertise, they use the opportunity to exploit the weakness of human nature.
Thus the most common form of medical advertising is for cosmetic surgery, which creates a demand by reinforcing the sense of inadequacy and self-loathing of potential patients. Similarly, almost all legal advertising is directed at stirring in potential litigants the desire for easy money from a source that would not otherwise have occurred to them.
Behind the advertising copy, “Have you had an accident that was not your fault?” lies the message, “Tell us if there is a pretext for making some wonga at someone else’s expense. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Small wonder that these ads evoke in those of a delicate sensibility the desire to hold their nose and move swiftly on.
But, as they say in America, you ain’t seen nothing yet. And it is in the US that we may see the shape of a thing to come. Last week, Stephen L Snyder, a Baltimore-based lawyer, launched a million-dollar advertising campaign in an attempt to flush out a billion-dollar case.
In full-page ads in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, he invites potential clients to step forward and sue. “If you have a billion-dollar set of facts,” runs the ad, “call the man the National Law Journal has recognised as one of the nation’s top litigators.”
In a saner world, that would not be something to boast about. One might as well take a full-page proclaiming oneself as one of the nation’s premier vivisectionists or the country’s top flasher. But lawyers have no shame.
Compensation of $1bn (&£520m), though huge, might not be as fanciful as first appears. In recent years, courts on both sides of the Atlantic have shown themselves to be increasingly sympathetic to the emotional hurt paraded before them. How do you measure the effect of post-traumatic stress syndrome (formerly known as “pull yourself together you’ll get over it”)? Well, of course, you can’t, so you do the next best thing and send away the sufferer laden with van-loads of soothing cash.
It is unlikely that a single individual could suffer $1bn of hurt, though Sean Connery might be the first. Last week, his next-door neighbour in Manhattan described the actor as a “rude, foul-mouthed fat old man” and a neighbour from hell. That is plainly ageist and offensive. At 74, Sir Sean is in a minority of senior citizens who have played James Bond, and, as we know, the law comes down hard on those who offend minorities. Minorities are a protected species.
Even so, Sir Sean’s hurt is unlikely to weigh in at $1bn. So what else might do? The Great Food Scare could be a contender. But whom to sue? Possibly those surviving early feminists, through whose efforts most women now spend their days as wage-earners, leaving them neither time nor energy for preparing good, wholesome family meals. Result: a generation fed on denatured, processed muck spiced with toxic Worcester sauce.
Speaking for myself, I am suffering post- traumatic stress induced by the awards season. The cumulative effects of the Golden Globes, Baftas, Oscars, Brits, Comedy Awards, UK Press Awards, to mention but a few, have induced a gut-wrenching nausea that must be worth some compo.
But without doubt the best opportunity came last week with the publication in the Daily Mail, not once but three times, of Esther Rantzen, 64, flashing her legs in fishnet tights and revealing a hint of her left buttock.
There must be a class action in this. Even her offspring suffered hurt. Her son described his revulsion at the picture and her daughter said it was lucky that she, the daughter, was not swallowing coffee when her eyes fell on the picture of her publicity-crazed mother, for she would surely have choked.
There must be several hundred people who did indeed choke, many perhaps requiring hospital treatment, and countless others who have not yet recovered and may be contemplating taking their own lives. Stephen L Snyder, this is your moment.