The legal profession has a PR problem: one sad reason why

low approval ratings for lawyersLawyers have a PR problem.

A recently released Gallup survey indicates that only 25% of Americans view lawyers favorably. The public likes lawyers even less than they do banking, the airline industries, and the federal government, none of which is particularly popular these days.

I hear this reflected in conversations with prospective and current mediation clients, who view lawyers with suspicion. Among the comments I’ve heard lately are these:

  • Lawyers will just screw everything up.
  • They’ll deplete all our assets and leave nothing for our family.
  • Lawyers only make things worse.
  • Lawyers? In my experience, they’re happy to take your money, not your phone calls.

Here’s what one caller said on learning about collaborative law:

  • Lawyers collaborate? Sorry for being blunt, but, yeah, when pigs fly.

Their reason for distrusting lawyers so much?

They see them as creating problems, not solving them.


Postscript, 8/28/2009:

I fear that some readers may believe that I wrote this post in gleeful delight, a mediator taking grim pleasure in diminishing public confidence in lawyers.  But this post wasn’t motivated by schadenfreude. Instead, it was intended as wake-up call for my brothers and sisters at the bar.

These statements about lawyers pain me deeply. I’m an attorney myself, and proud to be one, and it hurts to hear them.

Countless attorneys every day do good work for their clients. The great majority of those who practice law are honorable, decent, hard-working people who take their oaths seriously and serve their clients with integrity and competent professionalism. The many attorneys I know personally are the kind of lawyers Atticus Finch would have been proud of.

What troubles me is the increasing number of people who are reporting to me frustrations with lawyers, and the number of people who complain about poor services from their lawyers – lawyers who fail to return calls, who fail to keep clients informed, who treat clients with paternalism not as intelligent adults. I recently spoke with one CEO who complained that his lawyers ignored his explicit wishes and ended up costing him a critical business relationship by escalating and not ameliorating a dispute. I hear these stories with increasing frequency.

For a long time I chalked these gripes up to a few bad apples or even simply urban legend, but these complaints are not going away. My sense now is that there’s a real problem out there. I think these concerns merit our attention and must be treated seriously, and not dismissed as isolated expressions of dissatisfaction by a few uninformed cranks. I do what I can to correct these misperceptions, but this requires a widespread collective effort. We need the efforts of the bar, the judiciary, the legal academy, and bar associations. We need to root out their causes and vanquish them. There’s much at stake – we need the full confidence of the public in the law, its institutions, and its servants.

4 responses to “The legal profession has a PR problem: one sad reason why

  1. Hear hear, Diane! I hate it when mediators describe themselves as “recovering” attorneys. I am proud of our profession, very proud.

    I spent my legal career representing business people, as did my partners and associates. Over the course of that career, my colleagues conferred with me dozens of times on ethical issues presented by client requests – requests made without a thought to the ethical consequences or the requested activity. We are not saints. But neither are we the rascals some make us out to be.

    I’ve always believed that we’re distrusted for the very reason we’re so valuable to society — we operate in the gray zone of every dispute and we’re capable of taking either side because we know better than most that there are few questions where one party is “right” and the other “wrong.” Outsiders take this ability to advocate for either side to be a mark of our bad character — we’ll represent anyone who pays us!!

    What law school teaches and what we continue to learn in practice is that there is no single naked truth trembling in a corner waiting to be found. We know better than most that most disputes arise from our fellows’ sometimes radically differing subjective experience of the same “objective” series of events. And we counsel our clients not to jump into litigation until we thoroughly investigate their “cause.”

    Are there exceptions to this? Of course there are. But I have always found my colleagues and 90% of opposing counsel to be courteous, honorable, thoughtful, incredibly bright, well-educated and generous people. And you, of course, are one of them!

  2. Vickie, as usual, you have written honestly and compellingly about an important issue. Thank you also for your kind words at the end. You know the great esteem I hold you in.

    I do think that public education can go far toward improving public opinion of lawyers. With two colleagues, I once taught a training for mediators who aren’t attorneys to educate them about the role of lawyers, their code of professional conduct, and the court system. We covered everything from the common law to client representation. It was basically a course in civics, but with a special focus on understanding what lawyers do and the ethical constraints they operate within.

    During our initial discussion with all of them at the start of the day, it was extraordinary how many misconceptions we managed to bring to the surface – misconceptions we successfully debunked. By the end of the program, this training had won over the hardened anti-lawyer folks in the crowd. It’s amazing what a little knowledge can do to win hearts and minds. Everyone commented on how much better they understood the job lawyers do. We changed minds with that program. In fact, I’d like to teach that to every member of the public if I could, not just mediators. We might hear fewer threats against judges and less criticism of lawyers if more Americans understand just what it is that lawyers do.

    Vickie, I agree with everything you say about lawyers. I am one; I count many among my friends; I’m married to one; my son may be one soon (he’s applying to law school as we speak). One of the proudest days of my life was the day I was sworn in.

    But there’s a problem out there that we can’t wish away. And I’m hearing it in the complaints and mutterings among people who are turning away from legal services because of customer service issues. Houston, we’ve got a problem.

  3. Diane,

    I agree with you that there are really good, hardworking, honest attorneys who get overshadowed by the bad reputation the legal profession has developed. I also agree there is a very real problem. Many people are dissatisfied and frustrated with lawyers for very good reason. As you said, poor customer service- and all it entails.

    Not to jump on the lawyer bashing bandwagon, but both of the lawyers I hired ended up hurting my custody case. Not all family lawyers match this description, I sat in the courtroom in astonishment looking at my ex-husband’s attorney who was full of passion and energy representing his case. While mine was late, clipped his nails in court, no pre-court conference with me etc. As a layperson, I could see the difference in quality before me and it made me physically ill to realize that the seemingly simple choice of attorney selection was going to be the main factor that determined my future with my son.

    It was that exact situation that prompted my career change to mediation.

    It would be ideal if every attorney was truly dedicated to their clients’ best interests. And if those attorneys who are shining examples of that were justly acknowledged and rewarded. I await your future blogs on the topic and hope to see the industry make the needed steps to reward those who do well and discourage or admonish those who aren’t performing as they should.

    I think that may also be part of public skepticism, people see attorney’s behaving cavalierly with their lives without any type of consequence.

  4. Angela, I’m so sorry to hear of your own experience, and I thank you for courageously sharing it with my readers. As a member of the bar, I’m infuriated by the conduct of your lawyer. Your experience should be rare, but I fear that increasingly it is not.