Lawyers are sworn officers of the court. At least they're supposed to be.

But these days, they more and more resemble advocates-for-hire, legal mercenaries armed with subpoena power and a capitalist sense of self-interest.

This image of the money-hungry lawyer is epitomized by firms like Wheeling's Schrader, Byrd & Companion, which now owns 30 percent of a Boone County coal mining land lease it negotiated a decade ago for two elderly sisters.

Technically, the law firm doesn't really hold equity in the lease. But effectively it does, as the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in April that the sisters are required to pay their lawyers 30 percent of the royalties it generates in perpetuity.

Schrader, Byrd & Companion already collected more than a million bucks in fees in 1998, when a lawsuit the firm filed for Josephine Luther and the late Mary Marks settled for $3.5 million. But that wasn't enough.

Partner Ray Byrd demanded, and received, 30 percent forever.

"The (sisters) argue that the amount (of legal fees) could at some time in the future be so 'huge' as to be facially outrageous," wrote Justice Larry Starcher in the majority opinion that locked in Mr. Byrd's annuity. "However, (they) did not and do not support this speculation with any evidence."

In other words, when there was money at stake, the sisters couldn't out-lawyer their own.

Three attorney cheers for contingency fees! They're the gifts that keep on giving.

And taking. From your clients, that is. In our modern lawyer-client relationship model, we laymen seeking representation have become but opportunities for our lawyers to strike it mega-rich.

It wasn't always this way.

Lawyers once would have thought of such arrangements as not just unseemly but unethical. In another era, taking a financial interest in the outcome of your client's case was unbecoming. Passing the bar bestowed upon one a palpable sense of duty to the court; to ensuring our justice system worked smoothly, and was not manipulated.

That sense is long gone.

We're left with lawyers who hunt down clients and conjure up cases when they see financial upside. We're left with lawyers who take the
Bar with dollar signs in their eyes, driven by dreams of hitting the contingency fee jackpot.

We're left with a profession hijacked by greed, dominated by men like Mr. Byrd. Is it any wonder the reputation of lawyers is so tarnished?

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