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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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December 1998


Y2K: Is Lawyers' Greed Good?
News Magazines Ignore Attorneysí Avarice Over Looming Problems

When a business stands accused of greed, or especially profiting off of the misfortunes of others, reporters understandably take it to task. But their critical faculties depart when anyone outside of the corporate world engages in greedy behavior.

Case in point: lawyers and the infamous millennium, or Y2K, bug. If widespread problems with computer programs occur when the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2000, attorneys will be one group that is not disappointed. Many law firms already are creating special units to handle lawsuits against numerous companies, including those who are trying to fix the glitch. But in their increasingly large amount of Y2K reporting, most journalists havenít noticed this bit of avarice.

On every other angle of the millennium bug story, reporters have been thorough. A Nexis search found 16 stories about the Y2K bug in Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report during October and November alone.

Newsweekís Sarah Van Boven and Arlyn Tobias Gajilan, for example, note in a November 30 article that while "most of us havenít gotten around to securing dinner reservations for Dec. 31, 1999, secular survivalists have figured out exactly how many pounds of lentils and Kraft macaroni and cheese their families will need if computer failures disrupt the countryís food distribution system."

In the November 23 U.S. News & World Report, Avery Comarow points out that "America has far outspent other nations in deploying an army of programmers and purchasing new hardware to exterminate the Y2K bug, according to [the consulting firm] Cap Gemini." An October 12 Time story about buying computers for business purposes dutifully reminds readers that "any decision you make should take into account the Y2K computer bug."

Polls about Y2K are also becoming common. The October 5 Newsweek reports on a survey that asked, "Who should monitor and report on progress in solving the Y2K problem?" Thirty-four percent of respondents suggested the government, 23 percent private business, 16 percent non-profit organizations, and nine percent the media. The November 30 Newsweek informs readers that those concerned about Y2K are "not just folks on the fringes." Its poll of high-tech executives found that 56 percent didnít think the bug would be fixed in time and 60 percent wouldnít be flying on January 1, 2000.

But not one of the 16 major news magazine stories mentioned the rush of lawyers seeking to cash in on any problems created by the bug. To learn about that, readers had to go to the business magazines. Business Weekís Marcia Stepanek, in that magazineís November 9 edition, reports that "Y2K is well on its way to becoming the next litigation bonanza."

According to Stepanek, law firms are targeting high-tech companies and consulting firms, expecting hundreds of millions in legal fees, sparking fears that many companies will be more concerned with liability than with fixing the problem. She quotes Y2K attorney Vito Peraino as saying, "On this mess, everyone is either a potential litigant or a potential target, or both."

This isnít a new concern, either. According to Susan Adams, in the July 28, 1997 Forbes, "The prospect of this [Y2K] mess has lawyers drooling." She quotes Y2K attorney Steven Hock, who expects $1 trillion in legal and liability costs, as saying, "This thing is going to be on the same scale litigation wise as the environment, the S&L crisis and asbestos combined," and Panama City, Florida plaintiff lawyer Wesley Pittman as saying, "Itís the biggest class action I can imagine!"

But the non-business media have yet to notice that one group of Americans is gleefully anticipating Y2K disruptions.

ó Rich Noyes


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