I’d like to discuss the elephant in the room when talking about lawyers. Though perhaps another expression is warranted, because “elephant in the room” usually describes something known but seldom discussed. The widespread perception of the “evil lawyer” has the dubious distinction of being both known and often discussed. Why is that?
The legal system, and the lawyers operating within it, have one heck of a bad reputation. I’ve often found myself wondering whether this reputation is a result of the flawed system, a cause of it, or something else. In my experience, while most individuals will speak highly of their own lawyer, their impression of the overall industry is less favourable. When discussing the court process, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, client or legal professional, who wouldn’t point out at least a few significant problems.
So why all the Legal-Hate? Well, for one thing, legal-hate is an old game. Shakespeare famously wrote “let’s kill all the lawyers,” and over the centuries many who have read the quote, minus the context, have nodded approvingly at the proposal. To this day, everything from Disney movies to HBO dramas depict lawyers as evil, conniving, and manipulative.
But are these depictions accurate? I’ll go as far as to say that, yes, some lawyers are pompous, narcissistic, and self-interested. But downright evil? Maybe I’m still yet to meet the worst lawyers, but fortunately, none of the encounters I’ve made so far have been with such distasteful individuals.
In fact, many of the lawyers I’ve met are actually quite the opposite of what Hollywood would have us believe. They are caring, intelligent, and ethical, with a desire to use their positions to do good. It is true that the legal profession attracts those who want power and authority. But, by the same token, it is equally attractive to those who want to make positive, tangible social change. If I were to wager, I would say the population of downright “evil” lawyers is no worse than the population of “evil” workers in any other industry. So where does the reputation come from?
I suppose it can be partially blamed on the bad lawyers, since bad actors tend to take up so much more of the news cycle. However, I think many of the issues are actually problems with the legal system itself. Statutes are written in complicated jargon, courthouses are confusing to navigate, and legal services are difficult to access. Since lawyers have made themselves responsible for managing the system, it only stands to reason that the reputation of bad lawyers gets further cemented every time the system is mismanaged.
That being said, I don’t think this is the whole puzzle. The lack of public legal education is also a major, yet seldom discussed, factor. When the vast majority of people don’t understand the law and don’t feel comfortable interacting with it, negativity grows. Individuals typically only interact with the legal system when things are bad. This lack of positive interaction feeds the perception problem. We simply don’t have enough opportunities to learn about the law before running into a legal problem. We’re introduced to this convoluted system through a legal problem, and expected to work through it based only on the information provided in the moment. Without a foundation of legal education we can draw on, the legal system becomes all the more daunting, further compounding the negative perception of the whole experience.
I believe that when you combine the lack of education, historic reputation, and systemic difficulties, you find the root causes for the negative public perception of lawyer. Does that make it more excusable? Less? I’m not quite sure. What I do know, is that every law student should be faced with these tough realities the first day they start school. The legal profession will come a long way once more effort goes into acknowledging these problems, and finding solutions to its root causes. We’re already seeing many systemic changes underway, both within legal institutions and the industry, and it’s a certainty that more are coming soon.