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So Sue Me!

With Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc.® it's like having a legal pit-bull in your pocket 24 hours a day

By Kelly Luker

WE SHOULD HAVE seen it coming. There's life insurance, since everybody's going to die. There's medical insurance, since hospitals cannot be trusted with saving a life. Of course there's pet insurance, since Fluffy's bound to choke on a hairball one of these days.

Insurance is for the inevitabilities of life--like getting sued, for example. Only a fool would be caught without legal insurance nowadays, and Pre-Paid Legal Services wants to be the HMO of choice. For a monthly fee that starts at $26, PPL will give their customers a toll-free number that connects to a "provider firm" in Los Angeles filled with bloodthirsty lawyers waiting to defend to the death the little guy's rights. Or so we're told.

Once upon a time, folks settled their differences with discussion, possibly yelling, maybe even pummeling each other into the ground. But that was before Americans discovered the virtually limitless gold mine of lawsuits and the plethora of ambulance-chasers ready to help. No longer is it just big corporations like McDonald's that must worry about some nincompoop who collects 10 million bucks for spilling coffee on herself. It is the average Joe who no longer can raise his voice for fear of being dragged into court for "pain and suffering," or look sideways at his cube-mate for fear of being sued for sexual harassment.

It's cruddy, it's unfair, but according to San Jose resident Ray Cavell, Pre-Paid Legal is here to "level the playing field."

Cavell is an "independent associate" for Pre-Paid Legal, and if that phrase sounds suspiciously like multilevel marketing-speak, it turns out that this legal insurance is indeed sold like Amway's laundry detergent or Virgin Earth's Pig Arthritis Formula.

Cavell drives a tow truck for his day job, but says he plans to retire in two or three years on the residuals from pushing Pre-Paid Legal and his third job, selling ATM machines. The business "opportunity" (as it's always referred to in MLM-land) seems like a glove-tight fit for Silicon Valley. The gods that watch over offspring like Larry Ellison would no doubt bless the synergy between moneygrubbing and dodging legal hassles.

Like any good opportunity, Pre-Paid puts on a presentation for the tire-kickers. Last week's was staged in a featureless office building off Winchester Boulevard. With a boombox blasting out motivational music, John Duenas ("Call me J.D.!") bounces to the podium at the front and starts laying out the frightening stats. Fifty-four percent of the U.S. population has an ongoing legal situation. While only 33 million Americans were hospitalized in 1997, 100 million filed court documents.

The statistics, as statistics are wont to do, might be a tad misleading. For example, J.D. figures that worrying about one's rental lease counts as an ongoing legal situation. And court filings might also include noncontested issues like probate.

Whatever. The point is, wouldn't a toll-free attorney come in handy when the mechanic doesn't fix the car right or the dry cleaner returns the floor-length gown as a miniskirt?

While the multilevel marketing aspect holds about as much appeal as proselytizing about Nu Skin to friends and family, the idea of having a handy supply of Attorney-in-a-Can is almost irresistible.

Almost.

A quick reference check with the Santa Cruz Police Department, listed as one of PPL's clients, unearths grim evidence.

"Most of our members have had terrible luck with them and have withdrawn [from PPL]," reports Sgt. Andy Crain, former president of the Police Officers Association. "They found [PPL] could not deliver what they promised."

But flagging hope is revived when J.D. offers the magic phrase; ours to use at will if we will only become Pre-Paid Legal's client.

"I talked to my attorney and ..."

Imagine the prestige of dropping that line the next time the waitperson brings out steak cooked medium instead of rare. Or the boyfriend threatens camping instead of a nice hotel for the next vacation. When one thinks about it, the list of people to bully, intimidate and abuse by flexing our PPL-enhanced legal muscle is downright endless.

"We have a saying in this business," chortles Cavell. "If everybody makes money and has fun, then no one gets hurt."

Except the poor fool who crosses us.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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