Nobody likes a lawyer until they need one

By Michael Rappaport

“Nobody likes a lawyer until they need one” goes to the old adage. Public opinion studies on the legal profession support this view. A 2006 Harris poll found that only 18 per cent of Americans trust lawyers completely. Closer to home, a 2004 Leger poll found that only 44 per cent of Canadians trust lawyers.

Yet, despite the public’s general lack of trust in the legal profession, surveys reveal that people have the highest regard for lawyers they’ve actually retained, as William Johnston, past president of the Canadian Bar Association, argued in The National Post in December of 2004. Indeed, a 2002 American Bar Association survey of 300 households found that 76 per of consumers who have hired a lawyer in the past five years were either very satisfied (58 per cent) or somewhat satisfied (18 per cent) with the lawyer.

So, why is there such a wide disconnect between the negative public perception of lawyers and the positive consumer satisfaction with lawyers? Angela Fernandez, a law professor at the University of Toronto, was tasked to find the answer to this question by the Law Society of Upper Canada. “Even when people have a positive experience [with a lawyer], they view that experience as exceptional and they discount it, because they have in the background an entrenched global negative perception,” Fernandez explained.

Fernandez believes that attempting to counter the deeply ingrained negative stereotypes and unfavourable public opinion of lawyers is futile. “You really can’t win. Even if we could get all individual members to act perfectly, there would still be this global negative perception,” Fernandez said with a hint of exasperation.

But where does this “global negative perception” come from? And, what can lawyers do to improve the image of the legal profession?

Popular culture and the media

“The reason many Canadians think that our legal profession has badly gone off track is due to the skewed view presented by TV, bestsellers and the news of the day,” the CBA’s Johnston argued. Lawyers as villains are a cliché of popular culture. Stories of disbarred and disgraced lawyers are eagerly disseminated by daily papers and broadcast news. Lawyers have been depicted as the spawn of Satan in the film The Devil’s Advocate, as greedy, corrupt mobsters in the John Grisham bestseller The Firm and as singing, dancing, hucksters in the musical Chicago.

Popular culture may mirror public attitudes, but it may also magnify and distort them. Michael Asimow, a law professor at the University of California is the author of “Bad Lawyers in the Movies,” published in the Nova Law Review. He wrote that the increasingly negative portrayals of lawyers in films from the 1970s onwards “accurately reflect the stunning drop in the public’s image of the profession.” But Asimow also argued that the negative portrayal of lawyers in films have influenced the public perception of the legal profession for the worse.

Asimow offered three additional explanations for the deep unpopularity of lawyers beyond the sea of negative representations in popular culture.

First, lawyers are distrusted because “their assigned task is to play whatever role and manipulate whatever law a client’s interest demands.” Flexible ethics may be a job requirement for lawyers, who must be able to defend either party in a dispute, but it hardly endears lawyers to the public.

Second, “lawyers are doomed to be unloved because criminal practise is their most public function.” The extent to which the public identified lawyers with the practice of criminal law was revealed by a 2002 ABA poll which found that 30 per cent of respondents said they tend to think of lawyers more in terms of criminal court than civil court. In actuality only two to three per cent of ABA lawyers identified themselves as practising criminal law.

Third, the “general public will always associate lawyers with some of life’s worst moments.” Messy divorces, a death in the family, catastrophic accidents, the list of traumatic events that send members of the public scurrying for a lawyer is endless.

A few bad apples

Perhaps a handful of corrupt or greedy lawyers give the entire legal profession a black eye? Many lawyers who’ve read the bestseller Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex and Madness in Canada’s Legal Profession, dismissed the book for focusing on a few bad apples and by extension depicting the entire barrel as rotten.

The author, Phillip Slayton, a former law school dean and corporate lawyer, defended his book’s portrayal of the legal profession in an interview with The Lawyers Weekly. “After my book about the profession came out, I received literally thousands of e-mails. My inbox has just been swamped ever since, and almost all of the e-mails are stories sent to me by people about their bad experiences with lawyers,” Slayton said. He added, “There’s a widespread feeling among the general public that the legal profession has a problem.”

Slayton laid the blame for the poor image of the legal profession primarily on the inability of law societies to root out the bad apples. “The legal profession itself should not regulate and discipline itself. The law profession does a bad job at disciplining itself. This is one of the reasons why the general public is distrustful, because they don’t feel that lawyers that do wrong are properly dealt with,” Slayton argued.

Slayton also argued that if lawyers want to improve their public image, the legal profession must seriously address the issue of access to justice beyond spouting “a lot of high minded rhetoric.”

“Most people cannot afford legal services and do not have access to legal service. [This] colours the public’s attitudes towards lawyers. They see lawyers as extremely expensive. They can’t afford lawyers. They tend to assume this is because lawyers are greedy and want above all else to have substantial incomes,” Slayton said.

The bottom line

Nobody likes a lawyer until they need one. Most likely, regardless of whatever steps the legal profession takes to improve public perception, a high level of distrust will linger. However, the legal profession can do much, much more to ensure that when people need a lawyer, they have access to one.