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The Interview

Neil Chayet

By John Koch, Boston Globe

Is the popular loathing of lawyers justified?

I guess I'd have to say yes. The system has gotten out of control. We have a litigation mania that is driven by systems that are present nowhere else in the world. Nowhere else can you bring a suit for a spilled cup of hot coffee, win $3 million, and the lawyer gets $1 million. There are 715,000 cases in one bank class-action suit, and one person's take is $2.85, and he gets a bill for $90 for the legal costs, and the legal fees were $8 million. More often than not, the people are used as vehicles for the lawyer. The right to sue someone isn't used judiciously. Anytime someone gets hurt, it's deep pocket, it's class action, it's warnings. We've lost the ability to deal with one another as reasonable people. We've really got to get some humility back and look at new approaches. I'm telling corporations: How about it, gang, if we spend some money up front to prevent and resolve disputes and make people our partners instead of basically doing nothing for them until they find a plaintiff's lawyer and we spend hundreds of millions of dollars. Let's prevent the accident, let's prevent the problem. I love the law; it's a great profession. It really helps a lot of people, and we can do so much better for this society as lawyers than we're doing.

How much of your career is invested in your radio work?

I get up every day at 4:30 in the morning, and I do all my [radio] writing until 6:30. So most of my days are spent in my own legal work.

You have a polished on-air style. Would you call yourself part actor?

A trial is a real-life play, in a way. I used to try intersection cases for an insurance company, and I could never figure out why I was winning 85 percent of them. I asked a judge, and he said, "You prepare them like first-degree murder cases, and they're small dollars, so we always find for you." I've always believed you've got to get people's attention. My mother was a great teller of stories, and it left a lot of impact on me. [The late Boston radio news anchor] Les Woodruff told me I had to give the segment a signature. I came back to him and said, "This is Neil Chayet ... looking at the law." And he said, "That's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard." I've done almost 6,000 broadcasts since 1976.

The media have spawned flashy TV legal experts. Did you miss that boat?

[The radio work] has always been a wonderful sideline. I was asked to be on a morning TV show in New York, and I flew down once a week for that, and I was on WBZ-TV every Thursday for a couple of years on the evening news. I'm sort of a born entertainer, but I found television much slower. The pace of radio, the imagination, and the intimacy: I love it. In television, there is so much time spent around the edges, on the non-important, what you look like and so on. It didn't grab me.

What's the formula for your youthful energy?

I just turned 60, which is a great shock to me, because I feel 40, if that. I represented [chemist and Nobel laureate] Linus Pauling before the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA wanted to make the megadose of vitamin C that he recommended a prescription drug, but I won, and they didn't. As I walked out, Linus said, "Every day of your life, I want you to take 1,000 milligrams of C and 400 units of E." So every day since 1968, I have.

And didn't you represent Jonas Salk as well?

What we were trying to do was have an anti-AIDS vaccine tested, and Jonas approached it the same way he approached polio. He faced nay-saying and disdain, but he persevered, and he was right. But he got many people angry at him. I always felt he should have gotten the Nobel Prize. He was a contrarian but a wonderful man. He would tell everyone what they were doing wrong. His anti-AIDS vaccine is being tested today in Thailand. But if the establishment is really down on you, it is amazing how everybody just dismisses even the greatness of Jonas Salk.

The propriety of a no-bid contract awarded to your firm by Massport was recently questioned.

The implication was that I got it because I was the husband of a leading Republican fund-raiser. There's a generalized assault on people who work for government. I mean, are you only supposed to hire your enemies? I have no doubt the skills I brought to the job are unique, and the hiring was appropriate.

Could you be described as a workaholic?

It's just such an unpalatable term that I would have to say absolutely not. I sleep from 9:30 to 4:30 - what do people do after 9:30 anyway at night? I love to see the sun come up. And I have some wonderful other things that I do. I love to fish for striped bass with [wife] Martha. Something else: I'm the newest member of the auxiliary police department of Manchester-by-the-Sea [where Chayet lives]. And oh, man, the trains! I kept my childhood trains in boxes and dragged them wherever I went. When we finally moved to Manchester, I re-created the Boston & Maine Railroad in the basement.

When do you power up your choo-choos?

I like to do it for my grandchildren. It's a great excuse - you wouldn't want to be caught running your trains alone.

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