THIS country's legal profession had better take a hard look at the egregious size of the fees its members are collecting from tobacco lawsuit settlements. They're in the billions of dollars -- far more than what most Americans would consider fair payment.
Granted, these lawyers took the cases against tobacco companies on a contingency basis. That means they would have gotten nothing had the cases gone against them. They deserve to be rewarded if they win a big monetary award for their clients.
But how big? When does a just reward turn into avarice?
Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos is pondering such questions. He agreed to represent the state of Maryland in its suit against tobacco companies on a 25-percent contingency basis. He put up more than $10 million preparing the case, some 50,000 hours worked by his firm.
When the state settled out of court for $4.4 billion, Mr. Angelos' share came to $1.1 billion.
That's $22,000 an hour, or more than 100 times what the lawyer expended to win this settlement.
Is that a fair amount? Or does such a staggering sum exceed the bounds of judiciousness?
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran bears some responsibility for letting this situation get out of hand. He knew the state would be seeking billions of dollars from the tobacco industry. Yet he accepted Mr. Angelos' terms without placing a cap on the lawyer's fee.
That now looks like a big mistake, which was compounded when the Board of Public Works also failed to insist on setting a maximum dollar amount Mr. Angelos might earn if he won the case.
Mr. Angelos, standing on principle, says the state has a contract to honor. Yet he also says he's discussing ways to reduce the state's obligations to him. He is in a public-relations bind, but also a moral bind: How much is too much?
That same question ought to be a central topic of bar association meetings throughout Maryland and the nation. Legislators will probably hold hearings on the dangers of unchecked contingency fees, too.
A better way of giving lawyers their fair share must be found. Meanwhile, Mr. Angelos and Mr. Curran should agree on an amended fee structure. Otherwise, both men could wind up as losers in the court of public opinion.