Papers obtained by The Hill confirm that the prominent plaintiff’s law firm of Cohen Milstein is in for a 27 percent slice (plus costs) of loot from at least one branch of the ongoing probe over erroneous opinion on climate change, a campaign advanced by a subpoena dragnet from state attorneys general seeking papers and correspondence from dozens of free-market and right-of-center advocacy and scholarship groups. [The Hill]
Although the blithe denials of a couple of sources who spoke to The Hill might suggest otherwise, contingency-fee representation of states and other public bodies in damages claims was deemed ethically improper over most of American history. It’s a story I tell in The Rule of Lawyers, where I talk about Dickie Scruggs’ pioneering venture in the early 1990s in representing the state of Mississippi in claims for removal of asbestos from government property:
The United States [as of this point] had long justified its departure from other countries’ [bans on contingent fees] on the grounds that otherwise [given our lack of “loser-pays”] some poorer clients might be unable to obtain a lawyer at all. But no one was seriously claiming that no lawyer could be found to handle the asbestos case for the state of Mississippi on an hourly fee basis.
Until quite recently the notion of letting lawyers represent government on a contingency-fee basis would have been seen as pernicious, absurd, or both. But as Scruggs was no doubt aware, times were changing fast. Many of America’s legal authorities had begin to regard contingency fees — and the encouragement they gave to speculative litigation — not as a lesser evil that should be limited to the cases where it was necessary, but as something wholesome and beneficial in itself. The first experiments had already been noted by the end of the 1980s, with the state of Massachusetts hiring private lawyers on contingency for asbestos rip-out cases. If contingency fees for public lawyering could pass the ethical smell test in the state that was home to Harvard Law School, why shouldn’t they do so in Mississippi, too?
Since the Great Tobacco Robbery steered billions of dollars in fees to the pockets of politically influential law firms, the practice has been the subject of continued lively controversy, with legislative proposals in many states aiming to curtail or eliminate the opaque or even undisclosed deals by which private law firms get themselves cut themselves in on a share of public moneys by attorneys general dependent on their political support. Earlier on the contingency-fee angle in the climate subpoena affair here and here.