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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

How to Have a Good Reputation in a World that Hates Lawyers

By Geoffrey J. Miller

It may not come as a surprise to hear that lawyers are not as esteemed as teachers and engineers, but according to Pew Research Center's latest poll, Americans believe that lawyers contribute less to society than every other major job category on the poll, including business executives.

This is a little sad when you consider how many lawyers dedicate their lives to improving society. Take, for example, India New England's 2012 woman of the year - Connecticut U.S. Attorney Krishna Patel. Patel has dedicated her life to ending child sex trafficking in the region. Or take Martha Stone - Executive Director and founder of Connecticut's Center for Children’s Advocacy. Not to mention that school segregation in the United States and slavery in England were both abolished by lawyers.

That said, lawyers have a long history of being disliked. As Abraham Lincoln put it:
There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal.*
According to Pew Research Center, about one-in-five Americans (18%) say lawyers contribute a lot to society, about two-in-five (43%) say they make some contribution; and one third (34%) say that lawyers contribute not very much or nothing at all. This is not a new sentiment by any means, see this short television clip from 1992. The public's opinion of Journalists has also reached an all-time low, so by reporting on legal news, I probably run a high risk of being tarred and feathered in my driveway.

Lawyers are also seen as endless drains on the economy, increasing transaction costs and making everything more expensive. See The Cost of Accidents: A Legal and Economic Analysis, by Guido Calabresi. Many people also believe that lawyers make far more money than they really do. While a few lawyers make quite a lot starting out, the majority of new lawyers fall into the 50-60K range.
What can you and I do to combat the public's negative impression of lawyers? Pro bono work is a huge plus. From the Center for Children’s Advocacy, to The Innocence Project, which exonerates wrongfully convicted prisoners by use of modern DNA testing; lawyers are doing a lot of good.

It may be too much to ask to overturn the hundreds of years of dislike, but individuals can still maintain stellar reputations. Remaining ethical and doing credible pro bono work is a must. Additionally, focusing on clients and fixing their legal and non-legal problems when it is within your power to do so, leaves those clients with a positive story to tell about their lawyer at the dinner table. Jesus, Buddha, and Zoroaster would all recommend being a genuinely good person and treating others as you would want to be treated. This ancient advice never goes out of style.

Finally, take the advise of Abraham Lincoln, one of history's most notable lawyers: 
Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief [that lawyers are dishonest] - resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.*

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser - in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.* 
Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.*
*Notes for a Law Lecture (July 1, 1850), cited in Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works, Comprising his Speeches, Letters, State Papers, and Miscellaneous Writings (Vol. 2), 1894.