Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why Don't You Like Me?

Gallup is out with their latest polling data about various industries (via Volokh). For we lawyers, the news ain't good. Only 25% of my fellow Americans have a positive perception of the legal profession/industry. That ranks us fourth from the bottom, ahead of only real estate, the automobile industry, and the oil & gas industry. It's not much of a change from last year and, of course, it's hardly news that lawyers are reviled by society at large.

So why are we so loathed? There are lots of theories (the Volokh post and comments contains a bunch), but I think two factors really play into it.

First, most people don't deal with actual lawyers all that much. The impression of lawyers and what they do comes from the news and TV/movies/books, neither of which provide an accurate picture of what we do. The new focuses on the sensational cases and big personalities. From that folks get the impression that all civil lawyers are ambulance chasers, all criminal defense attorneys are lying weasels who will do anything to get their obviously guilty client off, or are narrow minded technocrats who bring to mind the bureaucratic regime of Futurama.* A fiction is, well, fiction, after all. Nobody's real life is that interesting or diabolical.

When most people do deal with lawyers, however, it's because of some sort of problem. You've been charged with a crime. You're getting divorced. A loved one just died and you need to probate their estate. Given those circumstances, it's not surprising that the memories those folks have associated with lawyers are negative. After all, even when you get sick and go to the doctor, you come out healthy on the other end (generally speaking). Interactions with the legal system are seldom as smooth.

The other factor, which kind of plays off the first, is that most people don't have a good idea of what lawyers can and can't do for them in a particular circumstance. The public perceptions of lawyers lead folks to think they can do anything and be the ultimate problem solver. Case in point - if you repeatedly sell cocaine to an undercover cop on video, then give a free and voluntary confession when you're arrested, there's nothing even Clarence Darrow can do to keep you out of prison. If you're lawyer's good, she can shave some time off your sentence, but that doesn't seem like such great shakes when you're doing time. Getting angry at your lawyer isn't rational, but she becomes a convenient target.

Of course, there are other factors. It doesn't help that most politicians are lawyers and nobody really likes them (even other lawyers). The real question is, can we change hearts and minds about this? Do we even want to?

* In which the head bureaucrat praises an underling for being "technically correct - the best kind of correct."

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