Top Dog for the Underdog
For his all-consuming dedication, some recognition from his countrymen
If the world of consumer rights law is a battle against modern-day Goliaths—banks, HMOs, mortgage brokers, credit card companies and others with powerful resources—then F. Paul Bland Jr. ’86 is more than ready to play David. And, he says, the stones in his slingshot include some lessons learned at Harvard Law School from a giant of another kind: the late Vern Countryman, who taught at HLS from 1963 until 1987.
So when the National Consumer Law Center recently honored Bland’s contributions to consumer rights advocacy with the Vern Countryman Consumer Law Award, Bland felt a renewed sense of connection to the professor he encountered at HLS more than 20 years ago.
As a staff attorney at Public Justice, a public interest law firm with headquarters in Washington, D.C.—and especially as director of the firm’s Mandatory Arbitration Abuse Prevention Project—Bland has fought some of the more egregious injustices committed against consumers by major companies. Though mandatory arbitration is designed to prevent a glut of consumer claims from tying up the courts, he explains, some companies add arbitration clauses to their consumer contracts—including clauses compelling consumers to give up the right to pursue class-action litigation—that make it nearly impossible for customers to bring cases. The provisions take many forms, he adds, but their goal is the same: to make the arbitration process discouragingly opaque and intimidating.
“People think of alternative dispute resolution as having so much promise—giving fairer, faster ways to deal with claims,” Bland says. “But what’s happening in a lot of cases is that the more powerful party takes advantage. A subprime lender is taking advantage of a poor person, or a car dealer of a consumer, or a nursing home of the person going in.”
Bland says his views of the problems faced by the powerless were influenced by Countryman during law school, even though he never took a class with the professor. In his third year, as president of the Journal on Legislation, he solicited Countryman to write an article on an important piece of bankruptcy legislation. At first, Bland found bankruptcy law “unbelievably boring,” but he says he began to understand its importance and its relevance to consumer protection in conversations with Countryman, who repeatedly tried to rouse his interest in it.
“As I got into the world and I started representing low-income people, a lot of the ideas that he was trying to explain have become a lot clearer to me,” Bland says. “What I’ve come to see is that [bankruptcy law] really stands between a lot of people and the equivalent of debtors’ prison. It’s an incredibly important protection.”
Bland’s caseload has taken him to state and federal courts across the country, including the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. But even when he travels, he makes time to meet with other consumer advocates (“a community of lawyers who really stick together,” he says) to share some of the finer points of fighting uphill battles.
“The asymmetry of resources is huge,” he says, “but it can be fun to be the underdog.”