Public perception of lawyers

Someone recently found this blog with a search on “All Lawyers Are Assholes.”  Yes, complete with the initial caps.  After I quit laughing (and got over being briefly miffed that this search implies that I, too, am an asshole simply because I’m a lawyer), I started wondering whether the searcher was looking for confirmation of his/her assertion.  I’d love to know whether s/he found that confirmation.

Years ago, after I’d been in practice for a few years, I spent a weekend with a college roommate and met a bunch of her friends.  As I introduced myself and admitted that I’m a lawyer, people’s attitudes shifted subtly.  Sometimes, I’d get hit with a request for free legal advice: “Y’see, I have this problem with my [employer, service provider, spouse, whatever] and I’m wondering….”  Others, especially medical professionals who weren’t doctors, would almost shudder and back off.  (Seriously, I’m not making this up, and I’ve never even worked on a med mal case!)  And a few would ask about my practice, continue the conversation, and eventually circle back to law by saying, “You know, you just don’t seem like a lawyer.”  I never knew quite what to do with that, or even whether it was intended as a compliment or an insult.

It’s always seemed to me that it’s a privilege to be a lawyer.  We have the ability to effect change in society more directly than many other professionals, we have the skill and training to recognize when something just isn’t right and to work to make it right, and we have the opportunity to help people who need it.  Strangely, that isn’t how the public usually perceives lawyers, and sometimes I wonder whether it’s how the profession perceives itself.

Attorneys sometimes behave as if practice is a burden, a horrible way to make a living because of the competing demands of practice and life and satisfying clients.  And, no doubt, sometimes it is a burden, but it’s a voluntary burden and it’s important for us to recognize that if the burden is too heavy, if it outweighs the privilege, plenty of other jobs are available that would reap the benefits of a law degree without actually requiring practice.

Too often, we view our work as hours to be put in, a way to make more and more money.  Reaping financial reward isn’t wrong.  But I submit that something is off-kilter when a profession becomes all about money, and I’d argue that something has gone very wrong when the public perception is that a lawyer can be bought, that the outcome of a legal dispute depends most on which party has the higher-paid lawyer.  This is a bigger problem than I’m prepared to address today, not only because of the public perception but also because so many new lawyers face the squeeze of student debt and salary lower than they’d been led to expect.

Finally, there’s a huge negativity surrounding legal practice.  We lawyers both propogate and, in my view, suffer from this negativity.

What lawyers believe about practicing law has a huge impact on how we behave, and how we behave has significant influence on how we are perceived.  Are you contributing to a positive or negative public perception of lawyers?

1 reply
  1. Julie Fleming Brown
    Julie Fleming Brown says:

    Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. I like the Glad Game idea! It definitely does help, if only because I think it’s human nature to continue down a path, to see negative when we’re in a negative mood but to see positive when we’re in a positive mood. Perhaps we should declare National Adopt a Positive Attitude Day for lawyers.

    And — I love Bob Sutton’s blog.  Thanks for linking to it — point well made.

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