The perception of lawyers among the general public is a concern that often emerges among those in leadership positions in the profession.
Granted, some of that negative reputation may be warranted, and there are lawyers who put their own self-interests before their clients, or who behave aggressively and inappropriately with other parties. But these lawyers are still the exception, even in an era of controversy over civility.
Those of us in the field usually know and appreciate that lawyers are the fabric of civilized society, and we ensure that fairness and justice permeate every aspect of society where we are present.
Most of us are unsung heroes. Due to confidentiality provisions, the vast majority of the good work that we may do may never be known. These types of contributions are truly charitable, and will never be the substance of accolades, awards, or advertising.
But there is something to be said about how many of us have not prioritized our role, and the responsibility of being lawyer, in our professional lives. In part, this can be attributable to the increased pressures on new lawyers, including the growing tuition debt. Along the way, there is a growing and every desperate access to justice gap that remains unserviced.
Only 4 years ago, the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) launched an image campaign to improve the reputation of lawyers. Jordan Furlong expressed some reservations about the plan,
…here’s the problem: “lawyers feel deeply under-appreciated.” That’s why this campaign, and all campaigns like it, was funded and launched: because lawyers feel they don’t get the credit and adulation they deserve.
But this is also why these campaigns fail, because people don’t care if lawyers feel under-appreciated. It’s not a problem for them. It doesn’t bother them in the slightest.
He’s right of course, but he also doesn’t go far enough in how lawyers can recapture this reputation. Improving the legal system helps, but most people ignore the legal system until they actually need it.
What’s needed is something bigger. And that opportunity may have just emerged.
Earlier this year, when the United States attempted to implement significant legal restrictions on immigrants from specified nations, lawyers from across North America flocked to the airports. They were highly visible, and highly active, providing pro bono work on the spot to all who needed it. Very few of them were actually immigration lawyers, but received guidance from those who had more background in the area.
The crowds at San Francisco International Airport and Dulles International Airport actually began chanting, “Thank you, lawyers.” This is unprecedented. Nobody vocally thanks lawyers at the top of their voices, let alone en masse.
Mike Lewis discusses this in MyNorthwest, asking whether this has made lawyers popular again in what he terms, “The Atticus Effect.” He notes that the wave of pro-lawyer sentiments “has caught even the most thick-skinned, skeptical attorneys a little off-guard,”
Jorge Baron, lead attorney and executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said it’s nice to have the general public see lawyers as the good guys – at least for a while.
“We’ve always thought of ourselves as the good guys,” Baron said laughing. “It’s always appreciated when other people think highly of the work that you are doing.”
Lewis interviewed Prof. Michael McCann of the University of Washington,
There’s no doubt that in the 1960s – the 50s through the 70s – that the image of the heroic lawyer, the Atticus Finch, was really central, was very influential,” McCann said. When the American Bar Association in the ’60s and ’70s asked why people enrolled in law school, “They mentioned ‘Atticus Finch,’ all of the time, like 90 percent.”
With the successes of the civil rights movement behind them though, lawyers turned their focus to more mundane issues and conflicts, and the perception of public turned with them. That’s not to say that lawyers during that era were always celebrated.
Leroy Clark wrote in the Kansas Law Review in 1971,
The usefulness of law in the process of reform and especially radical change is currently a much debated issue, both within and without the legal profession…
Law students today (probably more than average practicing lawyers) are quite close to the controversy as it presents itself in the profession. Many students are having professional “identity” problems because they are more anxious than previous generations of students not to ignore or perpetuate injustices.
Clark expressed “serious doubt” over the usefulness of lawyers in the context of massive social inequality given the imbalances of political and economic power. He notes the difficulties of using litigation as a remedial tool, including the isolation of civil rights lawyers, and the inherent tensions between ideology and financing. He concludes,
Some of the grievances in our society are so deep that their expression will inevitably push against the structures of what we deem to be “legal.”
Even during the heights of the Civil Rights era, there were some in the profession who insisted that the law’s major purpose was to promote stability, even if the principles underlying that stability were itself questionable. This belief also led many to some to shun the law as an instrument of change entirely.
One of the main tactics of the Civil Rights era was the use of civil disobedience, which explicitly called for breaking the law. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, wrote in his Letters from the Birmingham Jail,
“There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all… One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly…I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
King’s predecessor in civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi, stated something similar in The Purity of Non-Violence, despite also being a lawyer,
An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.
There will be laws in the foreseeable future, which will be unfair, unjust, and run contrary to every principle of our profession. Some of us will respond to these challenges. Others will say it’s not our fight, it’s none of our business, or that some other lawyer will take care of it.
For those lawyers that do answer the call, we also thank you. As fellow lawyers, but also as members of the public.