Its a question I often pose to my law students, normally near the end of the semester: Why do people hate lawyers? I ask it for a number of reasons but mainly to help them have answers for people’s common gripes about lawyers that they will hear at bars, nightclubs, parties, PTA meetings, post offices, everywhere. It’s also to make them think about their chosen profession and its place in the world. It’s to make them realize the negative stereotypes about the legal profession and make them try to avoid the cliches that have attached themselves to law.
So I thought I would put down what I think are the most common reasons why the public hates lawyers and give a bit of defense to the legal profession.
1. Lawyers are obnoxious and think they know everything
Well, some are more obnoxious than others for sure, and many are a bunch of know-it-alls. Most of the lawyers I know however are not like this, so where does the stereotype come from? Law attracts many people who like to argue and voice their opinions. These are not shy wallflower types. They are aggressive and expressive, a bad combination. And lets face it, you have to have some intelligence to get into and through law school, so they also have a base of knowledge they can call upon. We are also trained to argue and therefore when we get into a discussion, the more obnoxious of us may want to prove their knowledge or their perceived skill in argument by nit-picking and arguing to death (see point 4 below). Certainly, a few interactions with this type of lawyer would turn anyone off to the entire profession. Because they are loud, attention seeking folks, they tend to be more noticeable than the average lawyer. Also, it is more fun to present this type of lawyer in the media, so the stereotype gets repeated in TV shows and movies.
2. Lawyers will do anything to win a case, even lie in court.
Simply not true, but understandable how the public can see things this way. Lawyers represent one side of a case and are therefore not going to be liked by the other side. They are paid specifically to try and win. Often they are told things by their clients which may be false or which stretch the truth but which they lawyer accepts because he has no proof of its falsity. So a cautious lawyer may state in court, “According to my investigation . .. ” or something along those lines before uttering the alleged fact in open court. The other side, knowing that the facts contained in the statement are false, will attribute it to the lawyer lying. A lawyer may put a particular spin on facts that may seem to the other side as being a lie. For example, if a husband is late in picking up his children on his custody day three times out of the last twenty times, his lawyer may say that his client has “an excellent track record” in his custodial obligations. His wife’s lawyer may say that “he has been repeatedly late in picking the children up.” Each one will accuse the other of being a “lying snake” but its a matter of opinion as to how the record is perceived. To be perfectly accurate, one should say that the husband was late 15% of the time and let a judge determine if that is a good or poor performance record, but that’s not how litigation works unfortunately. Each side must zealously represent their client’s position as long as the argument does not fly in the face of reason. But to lay people, this “spinning of the facts” or careful use of words is labeled as “lying.”
3. Lawyers are too expensive
Legal fees can be daunting, that’s for sure. The more experienced an attorney might be, the more it will likely cost to retain them. But the price of fees is not the only reason why people think lawyers are too expensive; after all, doctors charge much more, heck even plumbers charge more than some lawyers do for their hourly services. Its that when you pay a lawyer, you often don’t get a product you can hold in your hand. In fact, when people engage a lawyer for a process that results in a tangible result -a will, a trust, or a closing where you get a deed- they are much less likely to complain about the fees. But for litigation clients, paying a lawyer often produces the result that the client thought they should get anyway.When you get a criminal charge reduced or dismissed, most clients feel that this was the only possible outcome anyway. Its frustrating to pay for four hours of legal time in court when three of them were spent just waiting around for the judge to call your case. In most cases, you are not entitled to get your legal fees back when you win, so when you sue for $50,000 and recover $50,000 your $15,000 in legal fees reduces your recovery to $35,000 and there is no satisfaction. Again, most people do not complain about legal fees for cases on a contingency basis because they know going in that 33% of their recovery will go to the lawyer so when they settle they know what the net result to them is going to be. Similarly, in fee shifting cases, like fair wage lawsuits for example, no one complains about fees when they are coming out of the other guy’s pocket. “A lawyer’s time is his stock in trade,” Abraham Lincoln said and he was right. Our training costs a lot of money. Our early years in practice we are usually making money for someone else. All we have to sell is our time and its hard for non-lawyers to understand that there are only so many hours in day that one can put in so we have to get properly paid for the time we have. Its not like we can have a website where our product is sold 24/7 without our involvement.
4. Lawyers nitpick every single word you say
Again, probably true. But that’s because we work with words. Every word in the documents or cases we deal with has importance. IF a law says that you must prove five elements before you can succeed on a particular claim, it does not matter that you easily meet four of them; without the fifth one you lose. If the law contains precise language about the type of conduct that is being regulated, if the conduct doesn’t exactly meet the words of the regulation, then there is no violation. Now, its hard sometimes for lawyers to turn off that mind set in daily non-legal conversations. So when people misspeak or don’t do exactly what they said they were going to do, the lawyers in the room may point that out. Sure its obnoxious (see item 1) but its reflex, sometimes we can’t help it. Many times, people will have a deal they are anxious to get done and the lawyers end up fighting over one particular clause because they see potential trouble down the road. Sometimes, these differences result in the deal falling through. Hence the phrase “We had a great deal until the lawyers got involved.” No one bothers to wonder how great a deal it would have been had that clause come back to haunt them two or three years down the road.We’re not nitpicking, we’re trying to protect you!
5. Lawyering is easy, anyone could do it
Because our work usually involves just talking, negotiating and arguing, there is a misconception that it is easy. Or at least easier than any other profession, like medicine, architecture or accounting. The planning, the persuasion, the nuances are lost on many clients and they are left with the feeling that but for the rules of the Bar, they could have done it themselves. And many sophisticated clients who do the same types of transactions all the time, probably could do routine ones themselves. But identifying which are routine and which are not, and identifying where things may go wrong or what greater advantage a particular deal my bring, is hard for even sophisticated clients to do. There are reasons why better lawyers make a better living. They are more capable, more attuned to the law, more experienced in the good the bad and the ugly that can happen down the road. They are more persuasive, more engaging, better advocates. The reasons that some lawyers have very successful practices and other don’t is because not everyone can do it. It takes a particular skill set and work ethic to be a successful practicing lawyer. You take your work home with you because your brain never stops thinking. When a trial lawyer is on trial, from their first waking moment to when sleep blissfully ends their day, they are thinking about that trial. Whats going to happen to day? What do I have planned? What is my strongest point? When can I have five minutes to call my clients back, etc etc etc. Its mentally exhausting. But all clients see is when you walk into the courtroom, ready to go and you begin your day.
6. In conclusion
So I always tell my students to watch out for these myths and stereotypes and do not engage in behavior that is likely play into the way lawyers are typecast. Choose your words carefully, don’t belabor and argue every point to death, manage your clients expectations as to fees and potential outcomes, be over prepared and diligent so you don’t get caught with your pants down and most of all, keep the lines of communication open with your client. That way when people are at a party and the lawyer-bashing begins, hopefully your client will step up and say,”Maybe your lawyer, but not mine!” And hand out your card.