Every so often I read about a public opinion survey – you’ve seen them – that says lawyers are less popular than politicians, used car salesmen or even IRS auditors.
Personally, I find these stories amusing.
But they can give a false impression. From them you might glean that lawyers have historically been exalted in the public eye, only to have recently fallen into disfavor.
Not so. Lawyers’ popularity has always been a roller-coaster. It has risen and plunged through the years.
Consider this from the June 7, 1956 edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. The story is about a talk given to the local Kiwanis Club by the law dean of Gonzaga University:
“[P]resent-day lawyers are in a strange position in that their clients will trust them implicitly but show suspicion and a lack of faith in the legal profession as a whole,” the article says. “Public relations is a difficult field for a lawyer.”
This was written nearly 60 years ago, but the words ring just as true today.
Two Eras of Extreme Unpopularity
In the Spokane Chronicle story, Dean Myers traces how American lawyers have been viewed throughout history. He says our professional reputation bottomed out on two occasions: in colonial times and just after the Civil War:
Law represents restriction … and was particularly distasteful to Americans in colonial days and just after the Civil War. Rugged individuals in the early days wanted few restrictions and developed a philosophy that anyone could practice law. This gradually was changed by more and better education for lawyers … until the profession had reached its high point just before the War Between the States.
After the War criticism of lawyers began again. The depression caused part of the hatred and distrust of lawyers because they were called upon to collect bills and start evictions and foreclosure proceedings …. Americans of those times also felt it was un-American to have a special group ‘licensed’ to practice law. The bar association was established shortly after the Civil War, and it boosted standards and raised the responsibilities of lawyers.
Where Are We Today?
It’s possible that if Dean Myers spoke to the Spokane Kiwanis Club today, he might tell them we are experiencing a third wave of lawyer antipathy.
Just look at the polling data. In 1973, a Harris survey found that 24 percent of people had high confidence in lawyers. That figure cratered to seven percent in 1997 – worse than Wall Street, organized labor and the press – and marked the lowest number recorded by Harris in the 30 years it has been conducting this particular poll.
The truth of these statistics is borne out in the way lawyers are portrayed in movies and popular culture. Back in Dean Myers’ day we had Atticus Finch – a regular Moses with a briefcase – and Perry Mason, who never lost a trial. Today we have Judge Judy and the anti-heroes of John Grisham novels.
Maybe this is no big deal. Practicing law, after all, is not a popularity contest. But it certainly makes our jobs easier when people – especially clients – like and trust us.
Popularity = Keeping it Real
How can we win the public’s favor? Perhaps by returning to first principles:
- Work hard
- Tell the truth
- Have compassion
- Honor our commitments
- Act thoughtfully
- Proceed with caution
- Show respect
- Treat others as we want to be treated
- Focus on giving rather than getting
- Don’t be reckless
- Follow the rules
- Keep ego in check
- Be fair
Maybe by emphasizing these things we can bring the words of Alexis de Tocqueville back to life: “As the lawyers form the only enlightened class whom the people do not mistrust, they are naturally called upon to occupy most of the public stations.”
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.