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Do We Really Need More Legal Help?

Not long ago, newspapers across the country carried a story about an 80-year-old New York man who was suing to …

Not long ago, newspapers across the country carried a story about an 80-year-old New York man who was suing to get into law school. According to The New York Times, Rubin Weser, a retired insurance executive, had applied to the law school of the City University of New York in 1991 and been rejected. Unfazed, he reapplied every year until 1997, but kept getting the thumbs-down.

Determined to keep his dream alive, and convinced that he had been the victim of age discrimination, Weser sued the university, claiming he had suffered discrimination because he was white, male and Jewish. The suit was dismissed in a lower court, but Weser appealed and his case recently reached a federal appeals court in Manhattan.

The purpose here is not to discuss the merits of Weser’s case; I’ll leave that to the judiciary. Still, it is vital to note that, according to the law school, the applicant was not rejected because of age, gender, ethnic background or race, but primarily because he had garnered extremely low scores on his law boards. According to the school, Weser scored between 127 and 133 on a scale of 120 to 180, putting him in the bottom 5 percent of all test takers.

There is a part of us that instinctively admires Weser’s feistiness, his stature as an octogenerian David pitted against a bureaucratic Goliath. Part of what it means to be an American is the notion that every citizen has a right to dream an impossible dream, no matter how hopeless. Stories like this are the stuff of legend, inspiring such movies as “Rudy” (talentless walk-on gets to play a couple of meaningless downs for the Notre Dame football team), “Breaking Away” (gutsy Hoosiers embarrass spoiled rich kids in Midwestern bike race) and “The Straight Story” (dying old coot crosses Iowa and Wisconsin in a lawn mower to say goodbye to his ailing brother). We would be diminished as a people if we suddenly adopted the stance that some goals are too lofty to pursue and some people too old to fulfill their dreams.

Still, this one’s got me thinking. In a society with roughly 700,000 lawyers already in circulation, it’s hard to make the argument that the Republic actually needs more legal help. Further, in a society where lawyers are variously viewed as social pariah, outcasts at life’s rich feast, a necessary evil or, in some cases, the scum of the earth, it’s hard to get too worked up about Weser’s midnight assault on the temples of jurisprudence. CEOs, in particular, should be chastened by the news that yet another litigious lawyer could be on the way. The last thing corporate America needs is for this sort of thing to become a trend.

It’s also difficult to make the case that American society is going to be harmed by Weser’s rejection from law school. We don’t need any more headstrong, litigious lawyers; we’ve been groaning under the weight of carpers and cavillers for years. And having just lived through a financial bubble that was largely created by lawyers, the prospect of adding one more attorney to the rolls can hardly be viewed as a thrilling proposition.

I don’t know what kind of law Weser intends to practice if he ever fulfills his quixotic quest, but I do know this: If I’m embroiled in any kind of litigation where real money is involved, this is the last guy I want representing me. And, God forbid, should he elect to work as a public defender, imagine how that’s going to be greeted by poor people who can’t afford a lawyer. You’re facing 30 years in the slammer, the cops have three eyewitnesses and you just found out your attorney is an 85-year-old lawyer who finished in the bottom 5 percent on his law boards, and just started practicing this week. You want to plead this one out, or what?

In drawing attention to this case, I am not seeking to disparage Weser’s credentials or challenge his motives. All I’m saying is that, insofar as lifelong dreams are concerned, the aspiration to become a lawyer has to be one of the worst. Eighty years old and you’re suing to get into Julliard? More power to you. Eighty years old and suing to get into Congress? Be our guest; in some states, you’d be the junior senator. But as for this dream, we can only hope he fails-if only to keep the already crowded pool of litigious lawyers from overflowing.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.