HEARD the one about the terrorists who hijacked a busload of lawyers? They said if their demands weren't met, they would release one lawyer each hour! And you know the Lawyer's Prayer, right? "Stir up great strife amongst Thy people, Lord, lest Thy servant perish."
Lawyer-bashing goes back at least to Shakespeare ("The first thing we'll do is kill all the lawyers"), and probably all the way back to the day some ancient shaman first hung out a stone shingle and charged a fee for his services.
Lawyers wince at the jokes, but they can hardly shrug off more serious evidence of public displeasure with the profession, such as the perennial surveys that show lawyers are held in low esteem or recent calls for reforms to curb the "litigation explosion."
A few lawyers are thought to be doing something important for society, like prosecutors who send criminals to jail or the lawyer who won your lawsuit. By and large, though, the public regards most lawyers as engaged in work that, at best, is marginally useful at too high a price, or that, more sinisterly, is needlessly adding to the complexity and vexatiousness of modern life, not to mention impeding American productivity and competitiveness.
So common is this jaundiced view of lawyers that one is startled to come across a passage like this one in "Pleading Guilty," the new novel from lawyer-writer Scott Turow. Describing one of his law partners, a hard-nosed corporate lawyer who nonetheless "believes that he is engaged in an enterprise that is fundamentally good," the narrator says:
"Don't sneer. It's easy to be a poet sitting behind the gates of a university or a monk in a monastery and feel there is a life of the spirit to which you are dedicated. But come into the teeming city, with so many souls screaming, I want, I need, where most social planning amounts to figuring out how to keep them all at bay - come and try to imagine the ways the vast unruly community can be kept in touch with the deeper aspirations of humankind for the overall improvement of the species, the good of the
many and the rights of the few. That I always figured was the task of the law, and it makes high-energy physics look like a game show."
The lawyer as do-gooder? A suit, a briefcase, and "a life of the spirit"? C'mon!
This view of lawyers isn't just a novelist's fantasy, though. Consider a Fordham Law Review article published last year by Robert Clark, the dean of Harvard Law School, called "Why So Many Lawyers? Are They Good or Bad?" In contrast to Turow's flowing prose, scholar Clark employs the fastidious language of the social scientist. But their roads lead to similar destinations.
Dean Clark acknowledges that the number of lawyers in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years, in both actual and per capita terms. He doesn't view this trend in the alarmist way of many lawyer-bashers, however. In answer to the first question in his title, Clark concludes that the increase in lawyers is a market response to the growing demand for the work lawyers perform.
And what is that work? Clark writes that lawyers, in a wide variety of ways, "handle the rules and norms that define rights and duties among people and organizations. That is, they are specialists in normative ordering."
Clark plausibly outlines reasons why, in late-20th century America, there is a great and economically rational demand for professionals skilled in "normative ordering," in writing, interpreting, and enforcing the rules that govern social and commercial interactions in a complex and increasingly diverse society.
The legal profession is "a useful one," Clark concludes. But beyond that, he says, the profession "can properly aspire to be noble, for at its best its members' services can augment the sum of human welfare."
The American Bar Association has just announced a $700,000 program to improve lawyers' public image. The ABA will do well if it can even persuade people that most lawyers are honest and public-spirited; it's probably too much of a reach for the legal profession to assert claims of nobility for "normative ordering."
But if more lawyers understood the ways in which their "enterprise" is "fundamentally good" and why the profession "can properly aspire to be noble," their own performance would improve and their public-image problem would take care of itself.