It has become fashionable these days to take potshots at America's lawyers. Frankly, much of the criticism is deserved. But the time has come for less carping and more solutions.
The key lies in how much of a commitment the US legal profession makes to provide a ''service'' - not only to the monied elite in society but to those with modest or no means. This must include better law-related assistance to blacks, Chicanos, and Asian-Americans. In some cases, more pro bono services - without regard for the client's ability to pay - are needed.
In addition, broader access to the system for all segments of society may best be provided through alternatives to costly litigation, such as arbitration, mini-trials, and informal means of resolving disputes. In some situations, the public doesn't really need a lawyer at all. Paralegal aid and professional guidance for defending oneself may be quite adequate.
All of these alternatives exist now to a limited extent. They need to be made more widely available. And the broadening of ''services'' must be accompanied by the opening up of the legal fraternity itself. The long-entrenched network - elite, white, male, serve-the-rich, ''old boy'' - is no longer appropriate. More women, more minorities, more lawyers who devote themselves primarily to serving clients are needed.
A year ago, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger fired a salvo, charging that too many lawyers are merely ''hired guns.'' He called on fellow barristers to devote themselves to ''healing'' breaches rather than fanning the flames of disputes to fatten their fees.
The chief justice's remarks came fast on the heels of Harvard president Derek Bok's scathing criticism of legal education and his claim that there are just too many lawyers in the United States.
In was only a decade ago, in the wake of indictments of a disproportionate number of lawyers for Watergate-related offenses, that the American Bar Association (ABA) and other legal groups began to focus on polishing up their images. Several law schools dusted off long-abandoned ''ethics'' courses and put them back into their curricula. And legal services for the poor and legal clinics for middle-income people suddenly became fashionable.
The ABA started to wrestle with a tougher ethics code. And after much debate it adopted one last summer. Recently there has also been a push to bring a larger number of women and minorities into the mainstream legal ranks - and to offer them salaries comparable to those of their white, male counterparts.
But progress has been slow. Government-sponsored legal services for the poor have been caught in the political cross fire between liberals and conservatives. And federal funds have been slashed by Congress. Women and minorities still greatly lag behind men in top legal jobs with high salaries. For example, an ABA survey last fall showed the average annual salary for women lawyers to be $33, 000 - $20,000 lower than their male counterparts. A recent US Supreme Court ruling, however, could lead to better opportunities for women lawyers. The high court gave Elizabeth Hishon - who was denied a partnership in a prominent Atlanta firm - the right to sue on charges of sex discrimination.
And nonprofit legal groups - which generally serve the poor and minorities - got a boost from the Supreme Court, too. It ruled that when they win a civil rights action their lawyers are entitled to public compensation at the same rate as that earned by those in a private law firm. It is only court-ordered legal fees that enable many of these advocates to stay in business.
Pro bono services became part of the ABA's Model Code of Professional Conduct last August. It states, in part, ''A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance, and should therefore devote professional time and civic influence in their behalf....''
Until recently, few private law firms offered gratis or low-cost services to those who were unable to pay going legal rates. But this is starting to change. A new legal listing indicates that more than 300 projects across the nation provide pro bono services by private lawyers. And just this week at the annual meeting of the ABA - the world's largest association of lawyers and judges - awards were made (for the first time ever) to law firms that are providing vital legal services to the poor.
Such trends must continue. Ironically, as the legal profession continues to grow like Topsy (there are 650,000 lawyers in the US, nearly double the number in 1970), credibility of lawyers with the public remains poor. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 24 percent of respondents felt that lawyers' honesty and ethical standards were high.
This will change, not with the passing of legal codes or articulation of standards or the revival of college-level ethics courses, but with a perceived commitment to helping people and resolving conflicts. Chief Justice Burger pinpointed it. The nation needs more healers of breaches and fewer ''hired (legal) guns,'' who are principally committed to inflating their own bank accounts.