A Personal View on Lawyers

I was speaking with a woman last week who told me that she had never had a good experience with a lawyer. Her history included estate planning, contract, automobile and real estate problems — all fairly common issues. Some ended to her advantage and some did not. Some of the lawyers were pleasant and/or very professional, some were not. Yet, she felt as if the net of any of the experiences was negative. Her judgment got me to thinking; always a dangerous activity.

Why are lawyers in every survey since the profession started always viewed so negatively? We live in a nation of laws that encompass almost every aspect of our lives. All of our major life events — birth, marriage and death — are enmeshed in a legal network. Our professional lives, from licensure to patient relationships to financial affairs, are circumscribed by a vast maze of laws. The same goes for our personal lives. There is virtually no area that does not have a cradling, or should I say engulfing, tangle of legal proscriptions and obligations.

Lest we all choke with the sudden re-awareness of the enormity of it all, let us realize the reason for all of this. The law — and its agents, lawyers — exist to manage and regulate human conflict. Hopefully it does so in a proactive, preventive way, based upon past experience. But most often, unfortunately, it is to get to resolution after the fact. And we humans are sometimes quick to blame the messenger.

But there is more to our distaste of lawyers than that simple observation. In the U.S. particularly, the law has expanded its scope to almost overwhelming proportions. Enough so that if you talk to, say a European, who also lives in a nation of laws, they are usually incredulous at how in America the legal tail often wags the dog.

For one thing, the laws here are made by lawyers at every level. A surprisingly low percentage of legislators are non-lawyers, in part because civilians largely do not speak the legal language and are confused by it. For example, I have often wondered if anyone read their Miranda rights has a clue as to what they really mean in all their complexity. I've been watching cop and lawyer shows for years and I'm still wondering.

Doctors are particularly affected by lawyers and their tender attentions because our work always involves sensitive areas of human function: physical, emotional and financial. And we live with a dysfunctional malpractice structure in virtually every jurisdiction, which continues to be perpetuated by the powerful and wealthy legal tort lobby. We can only hope that as economic pressure continues to squeeze the body politic toward a forced restructuring of American medicine at a national level, that malpractice overhaul will be included.

Academics argue about what the actual cost of our wasteful defensive medicine is, but added to the princely sums doled out in actual legal work, it is certainly in the billions. And if a national no-fault-like system will save major money and improve the quality of practice, it will certainly lower the anxiety level among all concerned. And that itself is worth a lot of money. And it might rehab the legal profession's status a notch in medical eyes.

But the tort lawyers have fought any such notion for many years with generous political donations and an army of lobbyists. Most of whom are, you guessed it, lawyers. And when they speak to their targets the legislators, they speak the same language. And none of them want their ox gored because they all fed at the insurance company "settlement" trough. And they feed very well.

My lawyer friends, yes I have a few, tell me that they are philosophical about their profession's reputation. Most of them feel they are rendering a valuable service to their clients and to society. True, they say, some of those "other" lawyers make it difficult for the rest. In fact, I heard that very thing a few weeks ago from a lawyer about another lawyer who was receiving a big check in a settlement to "go away."

Part of the rationale, so the lawyers' apologists say, is that the legal system's very complexity, expense and daunting character, actually reduces the number of frivolous and borderline cases. Never mind that "justice," however you define it, also gets daunted in the process. And, so the reasoning goes, governments' tight budgets and legislative impasse at appointing an adequate number of judges also contributes to make a quick resolution of an issue fanciful. This only further helps foster the "only the big case is worth it," social Darwinism way of thinking.

There is a lawyer on a local radio station here who dispenses free legal advice to callers (and who, it turns out, is worth every penny). One of his core bits of wisdom is "...right or wrong, if it isn't a big case, no lawyer will take it, so forget about it and move on with your life." Harsh yes, but also too often true.

I will grant you that many lawyers do pro bono, or free, work, particularly in criminal defense. And they do love their children and pay their taxes, presumably. But there is something about what they do and their frequent relish at it that seems to cast a shadow over even a winning case or a well-written contract or estate plan.

Maybe we should just acknowledge that they labor on our behalves to iron out the bumps and wrinkles in all of our lives. And while we may differ in exactly what we think is wrong with our legal system and the way lawyers conduct it, we certainly can agree that it could be seriously improved.

Or, out of frustration or a utopian wish for a better world, we should agree with Shakespeare' famous line when he wrote 400 years ago; "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (Richard IV, ii,86)