Want legal advice from Maine’s top lawyers? Keep your eyes glued to the tube.
By Sam Pfeifle
HOW MANY LAWYERS does it take to host a call-in TV show? Two (Rundlett and Altshuler, above), sometimes three if they have a special guest.
A man finds himself in a bit of a jam. It seems he’s cut down too many trees along his shoreline, and his “town fathers,” also known as selectmen, have chosen to fine him $2800 a day for this transgression. They’ve made him call in an approved arborist, who’s given some advice on fixing the problem, but now the arborist won’t come back to certify the job. And the town won’t let him pay the fine until the arborist certifies the job. And it’s been 30 days. That’s a solid $84,000 and counting, folks, all for cutting down a few trees.
Luckily, this man has found legal advice in the persons of Ellsworth “Derry” Rundlett, president of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association and author of Maximizing Damages in Small Personal Injury Cases, now in its tenth printing; Liz Scheffee, incoming president of the Maine Bar Association; and Ken Altshuler, an attorney with 25 years experience in the state (claim to fame: representing Kirstie Alley in a divorce case two years ago).
Did our Joe Sixpack win the lottery? No, he’s found his way onto Law on the Line, a call-in legal advice show Rundlett and Altshuler have been hosting since September of last year; Scheffee is this month’s guest. The show is generally regarded as the most popular program on Portland’s community access channel, TV4.
Upon hearing the fine’s amount, Rundlett is indignant: “You’re not paying this fine are you?”
Caller: “Hell no.”
Rundlett: “In my 25 years in Maine, I’ve never seen that sort of fine. They don’t fine people who kill people that much. I can assure you that no judge will say, ‘Oh, yes, a $100,000 fine for this man.’ Stop playing games. Get someone to represent you.”
Ken agrees: “If you make an offer to remedy the problem, it’s inconceivable to me that they would fine you that much.”
And so the caller is assuaged. Though he may have known more than the show’s hosts about the actual laws involved with his case, as Altshuler jokingly admits, he needed some assurances he wasn’t crazy (i.e. “They can’t fine me $100,000 for cutting down too many trees by mistake, can they?” The answer is that they can try, but they won’t succeed). Plus, he’s been given the chance to vent about the absurdity of it on live television.
The show is largely Altshuler’s brainchild. “I have been a big fan of talk radio for a long time,” he says, “and I really thought about doing a talk show.” He even pitched it to WGAN, but they were getting away from community radio. “At the same time both my children were involved in the YES Basketball program,” says Altshuler, referring to an outreach program that combines basketball and education, sometimes involving the media. His daughter Chelsea was a technical director in a television program, and Bill Blood, technical director at the TV station, was helping out. “I told him my idea [for a call-in show],” says Altshuler, “and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to the studio and pitch it to the people here.’ ” Altshuler talked to TV4 executive director Tom Handel, who loved the idea, and then signed on long-time friend and co-worker Rundlett to co-host.
“I saw it as a kind of Siskel and Ebert thing,” he says.
All that was left was the name. “I had come up with Line on the Law,” says Altshuler, and wife Lynda Doyle switched it around to Law on the Line.
Rundlett and Altshuler were eager to do the show because they saw a void that needed filling. From the start, says Rundlett, “we viewed it as a public service, a forum for answering legal questions, and in that we’ve been very successful.” But “we didn’t expect people to tune in to watch us,” he adds. “After the first show, it was amazing how many people saw us, much more than we thought.” Even within the legal community, they get compliments on their work helping people navigate the murky waters of legalese. “The judges will make jokes,” says Altshuler, “like ‘We have a TV star in the courtroom.’ ”
And though they started out as a pair, “we got tired of talking to each other,” jokes Altshuler, so they now have a guest and a general theme for each show. In addition to Scheffee, they’ve played host to prominent folks like District Attorney Stephanie Anderson and former Attorney General Andrew Ketterer. They hope that by bringing these types of people on, “some of this [legal knowledge] filters in by osmosis.”
And by all accounts, quite a few people are watching and lapping up the knowledge they’re dropping. “Viewership is around 45,000” in any given month, according to a survey Channel 4 did through Time Warner, says Lesley Jones, Channel 4 spokesperson. “There are as many as 2500 viewers at any one time,” she says. “We did that survey in April, so it could be more since it’s caught on a little.” As evidence, she notes that they get calls at the station, even when the show replays. “People call all day trying to get on,” she says, “even though it says, like, ‘Live on October 17’ at the bottom of the screen.”
No telling whether any of the number of people watching tonight might be those “town fathers” in Phippsburg — yep, the tree-cutter let that slip despite the show’s rules about not using last names of people or specific names of businesses, organizations, or places within the state. Could be they’ll catch a glimpse of Rundlett calling their outlandish bluff and go easy. Maybe they’ll put the screws to our amateur forester for embarrassing them. Either way, this public airing of a grievance seems to be just as helpful to people as the advice these lawyers can give.
“Half of what we do,” says Altshuler after the show, “is supply them with a place to vent, to say, ‘It’s so unfair.’ ”
Take the example of a man who calls in later on in the same show, taped Monday December 11 (when I sat as a studio audience of one). “Not to sound foolish,” he begins, “but what if a company for four years was supposed to send you a product every month, and four times last year, and seven times this year, you did not receive that product?”
Basically, after a long-winded question-and-answer period, it boils down that this guy’s pissed because the 60 Civil War trading cards he’s supposed to get each month aren’t arriving on schedule. Unfortunately, it turns out he doesn’t pay for them until he receives them, and he never paid a membership fee or anything, so, really, Rundlett doesn’t think he’s got much legal recourse. But that’s not the sort of legal advice that’s going to get the guy his damn cards.
And Ken agrees: “What are your damages?” he asks rhetorically.
Luckily, Scheffee has the ability to think a little more spitefully in terms of the law. “You could get them for mail fraud,” she says with a glance at her hosts to make sure she’s not stepping on any toes.
“See, she’s smarter than me,” Rundlett happily announces.
And Scheffee’s not done. “It might be unfair trade practice,” she says. “You should call the Better Business Bureau.” Ah, now the man has a course of action. You can picture him, sitting in front of the TV, maybe with a stain on his untucked shirt from the dinner he’s been eating while he watched. He looks a little bit like the comic store owner on the Simpsons. And now he’s rubbing his hands together, “Not send my cards on time, will they? I’ll sue ’em for mail fraud, I will.”
However, helping people get back at their tormentors isn’t Rundlett and Altshuler’s only purpose in doing the show; they do have some selfish goals as well. “We’re sensitive to the perception of lawyers as money grabbers,” says Altshuler. “In every show, we try to let people know that these aren’t all frivolous lawsuits; bad lawyers are clearly a minority. And it’s better than Ally McBeal, where it’s all artificial.”
In fact, between callers, Rundlett begins a line of questioning with Scheffee about how the election, in particular, soured the public image of lawyers. She’s pretty realistic. “I don’t believe the image will be untarnished anytime soon,” she says, noting that a distrust of lawyers goes back to Shakespearean times. “There’s that quote [from Henry VI],” she says, “ ‘The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers.’ ” Then she puts her finger on the problem. “Of course,” she notes, “the characters who say that are looking to commit crimes and need to get rid of the lawyers in order to do it. It’s just like those people down in Florida screaming at each other while saying the civilized lawyers are ridiculous.”
Though it’s fairly obvious, Altshuler notes he’s a “strong lawyer advocate. We like to portray lawyers in a good light.”
For the most part, that’s exactly what they do, more with their actions than their words. They listen carefully, and are respectful to each of the eight callers who make it on to this night’s show, even the woman who’s all up in arms that Chitwood — “Chitwood gets mentioned every show,” says Altshuler — won’t look into her claims that people are trespassing all over her property. They are always straightforward and honest.
“The worst thing you can do,” says Altshuler, “is tell people what they want to hear. Sometimes I have to say, ‘You lost that $5000, too bad.’ ” So, even though most callers are slightly disappointed when they find out they’ve only been kind of screwed instead of really screwed, Rundlett and Altshuler rarely come across as part of the establishment, they never use their callers as butts for their jokes, and they are never condescending.
This is driven home late in the show. They’ve just finished discussing the problem of lawyer advertising on television — “without mentioning any names” — when they get a call from a woman who has a question about access to a police file.
“I want to obtain the records of a crime that a relative committed in another state,” she says. Apparently, “another relation sent a letter that says I don’t have access.” Sounds like this could be a case of family squabbling, or suppressing gossip. The trio of lawyers must be thanking their lucky stars that they’ve been so respectful of the woman when they find out through careful questioning that she’s referring to her sister, and the crime in question is a suicide. Just three months ago.
They hardly blink an eye. Rundlett answers that police records aren’t always discoverable. He explains that she could sue the insurance company and subpoena the records, but that she has to have some legal basis for that action. “But, to legitimize the caller’s concern,” he says after they have broken connection with her, “this is serious, it’s a matter of closure.”
Closure for the show comes soon afterwards, as Altshuler, for the second time, recommends the show’s sponsors, Moonshadow Comics and Café, “a great place to take the kids”; Falmouth Flowers, “Jan puts together a fine arrangement”; and Becky’s, “prime rib for Christmas dinner.” Then Rundlett, Altshuler, and Scheffee do that whole fake talk thing while the credits roll. Wives and daughters soon enter the studio for congratulatory banter. The hour taping has passed incredibly quickly.
But surely, I am forced to ask afterwards, the irony involved in three of Maine’s most respected and accomplished lawyers, at the peak of their careers, discussing the merits of a case against a mail-order Civil War trading card company, isn’t lost on them.
“No,” insists Altshuler, “there’s no problem too small. Every time I lecture, I say, ‘Don’t turn down small cases, they may lead to bigger ones.’ That problem was the biggest problem in that guy’s life right then, and we tried to help him out.”
Law on the Line shows every Monday at 2 and 8 p.m. on Time Warner Cable channel 4. It is live once a month and then rebroadcast for the rest of the month.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org