Law has a PR problem: too often, lawyers viewed as instigators not healers of disputes

Speed bumps ahead unless lawyers address public image problemI spent Mother’s Day weekend in the town where I grew up, visiting my folks. On the drive eastbound home to Boston this morning along the Massachusetts Turnpike, I spotted the sign, hanging from an overpass somewhere past the Charlton service area. Rigged from a white tarpaulin or a bed sheet, it bore the following words, spray-painted in crude red letters:

LAWYERS WANT CUSTODY BATTLES

As I drove on, I thought about the person who painted the large red words and hung the handmade sign above the lanes of cars below in defiance of local authorities. It was not hard to imagine what circumstances drove him or her, on Mother’s Day weekend, to declare war on a system they believed pits parents against each other in a pitched battle for their children.

It might be easy to dismiss the messenger as a lone crackpot with a can of spray paint – except that this is the objection I hear all too often from mediation clients when I remind them how important independent legal advice can be as they weigh the difficult decisions they face. No, they insist, lawyers will make things worse.

A lawyer myself, this depresses me. What happened to make people think the worst of lawyers, to believe that lawyers provoke not resolve conflict? And what are we going to do to change their minds?

6 responses to “Law has a PR problem: too often, lawyers viewed as instigators not healers of disputes

  1. Pingback: Lawyers as Healers of Employment Disputes, or Not? « Minding the Workplace

  2. Wow Diane, I’m a guy and this even made me tear up… have faith, many of “us” are out here… I’m with you, it WILL change… like water trickling over granit rock… it’s changing now.

  3. Diane, I think you are right that lawyers have a bad name in this regard. Some of it very much justified. I have seen lawyers who brag about their ability to drag cases out or “win” cases (with very little regard for the long term success of the newly redefined family).

    The very unfortunate part of this is, the lawyers who do care about a good resolution seem to blend into the wood work. No one says (to everyone they meet) “Hey, my lawyer was great I felt we ended up with a resolution that worked for everyone.” When people are vocal about their attorney, it’s usually because they are unhappy.

    I also don’t necessarily think every attorney approaches these situations with total disregard for the situation as a whole, but some very likely take their obligation to act solely in their clients best interests very much to heart (as they should), but as we know, sometimes what’s in the parents best interests and what’s in the child’s best interests are not always the same. How does the lawyer with a heart reconcile their obligation to protect their client with (maybe) a personal conviction to work towards the greater good???

  4. Clayton, thanks as always for your comment – and for letting me know that this post touched a nerve for you!

    Angela, it sounds as if your experience working with family conflict has shown you the areas for improvement in the practice of family law. I think myself that one place to begin to reshape legal thinking and legal approaches to problem solving and dispute resolution is in law school. Suffolk University law professor David Yamada, an authority on healthy workplaces, has some interesting thoughts at his blog about the role of legal education in changing attitudes among attorneys about approaches to dispute resolution.

  5. Provocative post. Law and the roles of attorneys are changing: collaborative divorce, mediation and problem PREVENTION are cutting edge.

    We all (attorneys) started in law for a reason, often in the hopes of making the world a better place in some way. Remembering those reasons and stepping out of the box is a healthy step for us all.

    ~ Mark
    @condolaw on twitter

  6. Condolaw, thanks for your comment and for the reminder of the youthful idealism that brought so many of us to law school in the first place. I am still idealistic enough to believe that the law works much good and that lawyers continue to perform a vital function.

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