It seems as though lawyers are not as respected as they used to be. The dishonest, greedy lawyer who represents only his own selfish interest has become a stock villain in the movies and the butt of a thousand jokes. (Yes, I’ve heard all of them. Some of them are pretty funny.) But how accurate is the public image of lawyer as destroyer-of-all-that-is-good?
I have a different attitude toward being a lawyer. My father was a lawyer and judge. His brother, also a lawyer and judge. My wife is a tremendously talented lawyer. My oldest and dearest friend? Another lawyer. My law partner? A lawyer who is driven by a deep commitment to justice. I work and socialize with lawyers. I like lawyers. Truth be told, the best, most honorable people I have known in my life have been lawyers. They are uniformly bright, honest, funny, multi-talented, passionate people who try to do the best they can for the people they represent. When I say that I am proud of being a lawyer that is what I am thinking – that I am proud to count myself in the company of people like my father, my uncle, my wife, my partner and so many of my dear friends.
The law is central to so much of our society. Ever ask yourself how it is that you can go online, order a product out of a catalog from a vendor halfway across the county, pay by credit card and have some assurance that you will actually receive what you ordered? What prevents the vendor from just keeping your money, or stealing your credit card number? What makes you think that the product you get will resemble what you ordered? Or that it will be safe and work as expected? You can count on these things because we are a country of laws, and those legal rights and remedies are the glue that holds our modern world together. No consumer protection law, no commerce. No commerce, no economy.
You ride to work on tires that are produced by accountable manufacturers, on roads that are designed by accountable civil engineers, in a car that is manufactured by accountable car makers. Your boss won’t harass you because he is accountable. Your employee won’t steal your customer list because of intellectual property laws. You can expect that your groceries won’t make you sick and your prescriptions won’t poison you. The professionals you come in contact with will be held to appropriately high standards. You won’t have to bribe the police or some corrupt government official to protect you. Your safety and security is created and supported by a network of laws and legal relationships and ultimately guaranteed by legal remedies that hold all of us accountable to each other. I am proud to be part of that.
Unlike many professionals, the lawyers I know put themselves at risk for the benefit of others. Every case we take is a commitment. At the outset of any medical malpractice case, personal injury claim or civil rights cause of action, we recognize that we will advance $50,000 to $100,000 in out of pocket costs in addition to years of labor before we have any hope of seeing a dime in return. And if our clients lose, we lose. (I wish we could get the same deal from doctors, teachers, accountants or dentists – we’ll pay when we’re healthy, our kids are decently educated, we’re in a fair tax bracket and our teeth are cavity free!) If you don’t think that the potential to lose $100,000 and two years of work makes a man careful about the cases he takes, brother you aren’t thinking clearly. I judge the merits of all the cases I take, and I choose to represent the side that doesn’t have all the money, and all the resources against the side that does. I’m proud of that.
Sure, I have known some pretty miserable lawyers who fit the stereotype. I have seen dishonest defenses, frivolous claims, and some pretty awful behavior. But it is far less common than you may believe. Most lawyers hold themselves to high ethical standards. We have to. If we undermine our reputation for being trustworthy, we destroy our ability to work effectively with opponents and judges. Get caught lying to an opponent and that lawyer will never trust you again. Nor will the lawyers he or she talks to. Get caught lying to a judge and your reputation will suffer with every judge. Practice in a deceitful way and take advantage of your clients and you lose the privilege of practicing law. I welcome my ethical obligations. I’m proud meeting high standards.
I think that one reason that lawyers take a lot of heat with the public is that lawyers take sides in the most difficult and painful disputes in peoples’ lives. People are never going to like the lawyer who represented their ex-spouse. They’re never going to agree with the lawyer who represented the employee they fired. It’s hard for most people to come up with a lot of warm fuzzy feelings about the lawyer who sued them for an injury claim. That’s just human nature. Disputes involve winners and losers. Lawyers represent one side against the other side. Even if you do it with consummate tact, skill and courtesy, no one thanks you for opposing their desires.
The other reason why lawyers get a bad rap is more insidious. The ancient Romans used to say if you want to understand why something happened, you have to ask “Cui bono?” (“Who benefits?”). So who benefits if the lawyers and the justice system are viewed with distrust and disdain? Well, the most obvious answer is “people who don’t want to be held accountable under the law.” It is hard to persuade a jury to grant a fair verdict, when they assume that lawyers are greedy, amoral sharks who cannot be trusted. If you believe that you can’t trust the evidence that a lawyer produces then what will you use to decide the claim? Where there is no faith in the justice system, nothing can be proven and no one can be held accountable.
Cui bono? Who benefits from juries that are pre-conditioned to believe that most suits are frivolous, that lawyers routinely lie, and that the courts are a sham? Not people who have the burden of proving their case. Not claimants and victims. The people who benefit are the people who get away with maiming and killing and violating the rights of others. Manufacturers of shoddy products. Negligent doctors. Careless or drunk drivers who cause carnage on our highways. People who hurt people. Anyone who is objective and looks at the evidence must come to the conclusion that for at least the last thirty years there has been a concerted effort by insurance companies, auto manufacturers, chemical companies, drug makers and a variety of moneyed interests to: 1) encourage distrust of lawyers and the justice system (especially lawyers who represent injured people); and 2) stack the deck against claimants with unfair laws designed to limit and deprive people of their rights. This effort hurts all of us, and it’s not fair to anyone. I’m proud to oppose this effort in the courts and in the Legislature.
Yes, I am proud to do what I do. I practice my father’s profession with all the passion, integrity and grace I can muster. I commit myself to my client’s cause. I play by the rules. I hold myself to high standards. My efforts make this a safer, fairer and more just society.
Proud to be a lawyer? You bet I am.