To be (a lawyer), or not to be (a lawyer); that was our question. Many of us decided to go into the practice for a myriad of reasons; social justice, money, fame because playing piano in a brothel was unfeasible and so on. We studied all the law and all its historical jurisprudence in our respective law schools. We further learned in school or elsewhere the scorn many people hold for attorneys. Why is this so?
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
William Shakespeare, King Henry VI Part 2.
“My decision to become a lawyer was irrevocably sealed when I realized my father
hated the legal profession.” John Grisham
Perhaps people are jealous of the huge sums of money we make; at least that is what I hear. Perhaps they hate our nice suits or fancy cars or big houses. I have heard those do exist too. Perhaps they are threatened by the self-discipline they know it takes to get through years and years of agonizing legal education. Doctors too are often held in low regard. Many medical friends of mine will relate similar experiences of scorn and derision. They also often tell of the often fictional “good life” of a well-paid physician.
“’Lawyer’, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.”
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary.
Barristers hold a proud place in the English and American common law. So noble was the practice in England that the barristers used to not touch the money they were paid. Patrons would place pay in their robe pockets to keep the honorable practice of law from the low-brow collection of money. Where did those days go?
The above-cited quote from King Henry VI does not mean that life would simply be more pleasurable if there were no lawyers. It meant something more deeper and more profound. Within context, the quote inferred that lawyers were the keepers of the rules; the arbiters of structure in society. In the noble ancestry of the practice of law, this meant that without laws, and therefore lawyers to administer and interpret and argue those laws, there would be anarchy.
“I don’t think you can make a lawyer honest by an act of legislature. You’ve got to work on his conscience.
And his lack of conscience is what makes him a lawyer.” Will Rogers
A measured and organized society needs rules. Those rules need to be known by and regulated by lawyers. It is not any more or less complicated than that. And still we are far too often scorned. When I began my practice of law, I realized that four easy “riles” would elevate me into the top third of practicing counsel: (1) be competent, if not expert, at least competent in the area in which you are practicing; (2) look clients in the eyes when you speak to them; (3) be honest about the frailties of their case; and (4) manage client expectations. I learned this lesson the hard way; as do we all. A growing percentage of my clientele’ emanates from someone else’s client list. That former counselor somehow lost those clients by violating one of these four rules. I have violated, to some degree still do violate, at a least rules #3 and #4. I like all attorneys like paying customers. There is a profound difference between voluntary and involuntary pro bono work. However, in my zeal for an exciting case or zest for paying the overhead at my office, I still find myself promising a little too much, saying it a bit too optimistically, or honestly underestimating the challenge of a case; especially since I often find myself on the plaintiff bar of the practice.
“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.”
With that in mind, there is a small percentage of the bar who give attorneys their bad name. We all know who they are. For me, 90-95% of the Dayton bar are people: (1) I respect; (2) I like personally; and (3) with whom I would share dinner and/or bourbon. It’s the other 5-10% of the sample population who fail on two or all three of those accounts. They are not merely “ambulance chasers”, but endeavor to belittle clients and opposing counsel alike; I fear out of a need to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere. They are the ones who, often in loud and boisterous voice, transmit the form of arrogance and lack of empathy that we all seem to hear when discussing lawyers. The massive amount of lawyer jokes are on one level humorous, yet on another level telling of the important role we attorneys play in modern society and also the scorn with which we have to deal.
The attitude toward attorneys might have something to do with their portrayal in movies and on TV. From Perry Mason, Jack McCoy on “Law & Order”, or Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at one end of the spectrum to the drunken underdog played by Paul Newman in “The Verdict” or Al Pacino’s Arthur Kirkland in “And Justice for All” on the other end, lawyers are seen as everything from the most noble to the most base of creature.
“I think we may class the lawyer in the natural history of monsters.”
We like to see ourselves as fitting in the former category, but due to occasional perception problems or arrogance disguised as supreme confidence, some at times see us as fitting more snugly into the latter. In part, people fear the unknown. Like taking your car to a mechanic you do not fully trust or your child to a new doctor, humans approach the unknown with concern. For most people, the American legal system is the unknown. The best teachers are those who can take complex information and explain it simply. In part that is what we are; legal teachers as well as counselors. Let us never forget that.
The bottom line is this: We need to drum out the 5-10% that ruin our reputations and defame our good intentions and slowly, client by client, educate people of the importance of law in our society and the noble way we (try to) practice it. When will I stop “practicing” at law? I will get back to you on that one. Often it is a simple matter of education. The more that our clients understand the complexities (and at times idiosyncrasies) of the law applicable to their case or the frailties of the case they think they have, the more they seem to appreciate our efforts, training, and compassionate practice of the age-old and noble craft of practicing law.
“The good lawyer is not the man who has an eye to every side and angle of contingency, and qualifies all his qualifications, but who throws himself on your part so heartily, that he can get you out of a scrape.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Mark Bamberger Co., LLC is a general practices focusing on bankruptcy, civil litigation, criminal defense, employment law, family law, environmental law, and animal law. See www.bambergerlaw.com. TMBC has offices in Tipp City, West Chester, Enon, and Spring Valley, Ohio.
As the famous remark by the plotter of treachery in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI shows – “The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers,” – the surest way to chaos and tyranny even then was to remove the guardians of independent thinking. http://www.spectacle.org/797/finkel.html, The Ethical Spectacle, July, 1997.
These percentages are anecdotal averages drawn from a consensus with other attorneys and is pertinent to the Dayton (Ohio) bar. My experience is that for the Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, or Cleveland bars, the percentage of bad actors is notably higher.