“Lawyers, Liars, Bah!” That’s what my immigrant, blue-collar Grandpa said, when I told him thirty years ago I’d be joining my twin brother as a student at Harvard Law School. Three words, and he never brought up the subject again.
Distrust of lawyers is ancient and widespread, and based on much more than class envy or the sour grapes of a dissatisfied client. From Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia“, to Walter Olson’s Overlawyered.com, and from Shakespeare to Shark Mugs (and t-shirts), lawyers have been universally disrespected, even by (and sometimes especially by) those who know them the best and need them the most.
Why? Put simply, human beings find it difficult to trust or respect liars — especially the dissembler who promises protection, disguises motives or parses words. Like it or not, to the average person, lawyers seem to be in the business of lying, their degree being a license to lie — and steal. [You'll find some all-too-representative quotations and jokes in Poetic Justice (edited by Jonathan and Andrew Roth, Nolo Press, 1994) and by clicking on a few results from a "lawyer joke" Google search.] The causes go far beyond the central role lawyers play in our “adversarial” legal system, although that doesn’t help (“You see, my dear, both sides present slanted stories and the judge nevertheless figures out what the truth is and renders justice.”)
Before the existence of the modern media, the public learned about their local lawyers at the public market, through neighborly gossip, and eventually from newspaper accounts. There were relatively few attorneys in most communities, and the personal reputation of each lawyer could stand on its own. Now, Americans and other members of the westernized world mostly see lawyers at work on their television screens, and the picture isn’t pretty. It’s not hard to understand the public’s disrespect for the profession, when its main images are:
- criminal defense lawyers spouting sound bites on courthouse steps, the content of which often strains credulity, blames victims, and has very little to do with the important role of making the government prove its case;
- ceaseless tidal waves of personal injury ads, with lawyers promising to be your best friend and to fight selflessly to get you every penny you deserve — when, in fact, they will not lift a finger for you unless you sign over a third or 40% of your claim, no matter how little work or risk is involved for their firm;
- heroine and hero lawyers in popular tv shows and movies who have very little problem using deception and ignoring ethical obligations
Except for real estate closings, the most likely significant personal contact with a lawyer for the average American often comes in the context of a divorce or custody fight — either their own or that of a close friend. In that setting, lawyers consistently make claims about the opposing client that are willful distortions of the truth, used for posturing or leverage. In pleadings and during negotiations, for example, baseless or trumped-up charges of parental unfitness and spousal cruelty are routinely made, and frequently considered to be skillful lawyering. The resulting scars and resentment of lawyers tend to last a lifetime.
A major study released last year for the ABA Section of Litigation on “Public Perceptions of Lawyers“ (June 2002) merely confirmed the public’s lack of confidence in the profession. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, the organized bar combats millennia of ill will and bad press with canned speeches and a barrel of “mugs, magnets, t-shirts, hats, mousepads, buttons, stickers & more” straight from the Law Day Store. The profession acts as if it only has an image problem and not a fundamental crisis.
Therefore, whenever bar leaders are published on the op/ed pages of the media, or quoted on the news pages, we only hear that the profession holds itself to “the highest ethical standards,” and is working hard to improve its civility and protect its clients (when, in fact, it is usually protecting clients — and therefore lawyers — from competition and choice). Their detractors are painted as opportunists with political or economic agendas. And, lawyer jokes are depicted as the cause rather than the result of the public’s distrust.
- My message to the legal profession: You do need more PR, but it must be Professional Responsibility, not Public Relations. Image crafting only sounds like more deception to the average (and above-average) American. Like more lies. Lost trust has to be earned the hard way — client by client, case by case, with the focus on competence, diligence, and loyalty toward the client; on responsibility toward society rather than toward guild and gelt; on vigorous overseeing rather than overlooking of ethical rules; and on service rather than self-importance.
- Legal consumers can’t merely be told that the client comes first. They have to see it and feel it. Until then, the equation “lawyer = liar” will remain a truism in the mind of the common man, not just a humorous pun.
Doing Right by Shakespeare: Before I sign off, please allow me to sound-off about a particularly dastardly example of lawyer disinformation — the party line propaganda used to combat the ubiquitous quotation from Shakespeare, which I paraphrased in the headline above, and set forth here:
“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.“
–Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii
The classiest response by the Bar to those nine little words by the Bard, would be to ignore them and merely smile at all the notepads, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and baseball caps upon which they appear. Another dignified option would be making a professional, non-defensive response; something like: “Hey, it’s just one line from a 400-year-old play. No one can say whether a particular character is echoing an author’s beliefs. Even though Shakespeare often uses his comedic characters to make barbs at society’s ills and injustices, we can’t know if that was his purpose here. Shakespeare was an entertainer and many of the rabble in the audience almost certainly enjoyed hearing such populist sentiments.”
However, instead of taking such a reasonable approach, the Bar has decided to put down its lawyers license and engage in artistic license and fiction writing. In the name of setting the record straight, they have decided to misinform the public about the meaning and context of Shakespeare’s famous line. The party line is, therefore, that the sentence demonstrates Shakespeare’s unshakable recognition of the important role lawyers play in maintaining the rule of law and the fruits of civilization. The phrase is [the lawyers insist] a tribute to lawyers. See, for example the assertions here, here, and here.
As attorney and mediator Linda C. Fritz, Esq., declares, quoting an ABA President:
The truth about “Let’s kill all the lawyers”!
“Service to others is a worthy goal for an aspiring professional and the best response all lawyers can make to our critics. We might also urge the bashers to read their Shakespeare more carefully.
The words, ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers,’ were not spoken by a disgruntled litigant (or even by Henry VI’s press secretary). They were uttered by the conspirators in Cade’s Rebellion, who planned to overthrow the English government, destroy the ancient rights of English men and women, [as such "rights" were available to women at that time], and establish a virtual dictatorship.
Through the rebels’ threat, Shakespeare reminds the groundlings that lawyers, as protectors of that system of ordered liberty, are as much an obstacle to a rebellion that would curtail liberty as any garrisoned castle. Thus, Cade’s path to oppression leads inevitably over their bodies…”. — John J. Curtin, Jr., Esq., President, American Bar Association, published in the ABA Journal, September, 1990.
No less a luminary that the venerable Dean David T. Link makes the same argument:
In fact, the famous quote from Shakespeare is not a criticism of lawyers, but actually is the greatest possible compliment. The scene from “Henry VI” (Part II) concerns the planning of an evil revolution–a takeover of power by Cades and his companion, Dick the Butcher, for their own greedy purposes. Dick the Butcher, recognizing the one group of people that might save the citizenries’ property and rights, says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The lawyers, in other words, were the potential enemies of the despots.
This propaganda has been repeated so often that even an astute observer and skeptic like St. Petersburg Times columnist Howard Troxler, has accepted it (“Don’t kill the lawyers, just the frivolous lawsuits,” July 10 2002):
Lastly, for the record, so lawyers will quit accusing me of being ignorant, I am perfectly aware of the context of the original “kill the lawyers” quote. It comes from Shakespeare (2 Henry VI, Act IV, Scene 2), in which there is a conspiracy to establish a dictatorship.
The plotters are boasting about how they will make everybody bow down to them. That is when one of the conspirators chimes in, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” His goal was to destroy the law, so that the citizens would have no legal protection. I admit this freely. You will notice, however, that Shakespeare was silent on the question of a less drastic reform.
There’s one problem, neither the play itself nor English history support the legal profession’s interpretation of Shakespeare. First, the conversation between Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher is not a discussion on how to plot to win a rebellion against lawful government. Quite the opposite, Cade is proclaiming what he will do “when I am king, — as king I will be.” When Butcher yells out that the first thing he wants done is to kill all the lawyers, Cade responds, “Nay, that I mean to do,” and laments “I was never mine own man” since signing a contract ["scribbled" on parchment by a lawyer and sealed with bee's wax]. The full conversation that contains the line can be read here.
This rings true, from a historical perspective, as a proposal to kill all lawyers was a central feature of the earlier rebellion led by Wat Tyler in 1381, and Shakespeare (never a strict historian) appears to meld the Tyler and Cade uprisings together. As one source has explained, lawyers were targeted in Tyler’s Peasants Revolt, because they “enabled landlords to force many labourers to return to the old conditions by finding faults in deeds of manumission ” [That is, peasants who had been freed from servitude or serfdom by their masters were returned to bondage, when lawyers found loopholes in the documents that had purportedly freed them.]
The English do not view Cade and Tyler as mere riff-raff in revolt against a benign government, as the lawyer propagandists insist. Here’s a description of the Cade Rebellion on the bbc website:
Jack Cade’s rebellion
Henry VI was an unpopular king, who imposed crippling taxes resulting in poverty for the people, whilst being accused of extravagant living and corruption in his own court. John Mortimer, an Irishman living in Kent and calling himself Jack Cade, led a rebellion to protest about laws, taxes and extortion of food and goods which kept them poor. The rebels wanted justice and claimed that the King was not keeping to the solemn oaths he had sworn to abide by. One demand was that Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, (whom Cade claimed as a Mortimer cousin) should be recalled from exile in Ireland and made King instead. Unusually, Cade’s followers were not only peasants but also landowners and gentry.
Similarly, here is the History of the Peasants’ Revolt found at Britannia.com (written by Jeff Hobbs):
The targets that the peasants attacked, plus the demands that they made to the King, show the pressures they faced at the time. The immediate cause of the revolt was the unprecedented amount of taxation the peasantry faced from the Government. The poll tax of 1380 was three times higher than that of the previous year and, unlike its predecessor, taxed rich and poor at the same rate. Hence, it was very unpopular with the peasantry.
However, the main call of the peasant rebels was for the abolition of serfdom. This was because, since the middle of the century, their lords had prevented them from making the most of the changing economic conditions. Visitations of the plague since 1348/9 had reduced the population by between a third and a half. As a result, labour became more scarce, wages rose and the economy began to suit the peasant more than it suited the landowner. However, the landowners of Parliament legislated to keep wages low and to restrict the free movement of serfs.
That’s the unlawyered version of the story. In this historic context, lawyers were seen as protecting the privileged and corrupt establishment, as part of the resistance to needed social change and justice. Whatever William Shakespeare actually felt about the legal profession, a good part of his audience would have enjoyed hearing Dick the Butcher’s idea for improving society once their rebellion was successful. The royal “we” here at ethicalEsq? are not advocating slaughtering all the lawyers — just stifling all the liars.
ethicalEsq – ethicalEsq
Thanks: to Dennis Kennedy for pointing over to this posting and adding his own reflections at his weblog, as did our D&E Man, George Wallace, under the guise of A Fool in the Forest. Und, vielen dank to Ernie for directing his throng over here (and pointing that loaded gun in another direction), to Harvey Morrell at UBalt.LawLibraryBlog, our friends at the Stark County Library Blawg, and the tres vague proprietor of makeoutcity.com, too. Also, many thanks to The Noble Pundit for including this posting in Carnival of the Capitalists #3 (October 26, 2003).
update (Oct. 30, 2004): As mentioned here, the swarm of lawyers around the 2004 Presidential Election will almost surely reduce the profession’s popularity even more. Is the Bar prepared to tell the public why/if/when the election role is appropriate?
update (Nov. 7, 2004): A thoughtful “middle” position on just what Shakespeare meant is offered by Kory Swanson, Vice President, John Locke Foundation, and discussed in “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers” and Other Insights from the Bard: Shakespeare’s multi-layered commentary on the law, by Teresa Nichols (Carolina Journal Online, July 31, 2003). According to Nichols, Swanson concludes “Shakespeare truly intended the phrase to be a portrayal of corrupt lawyers and the laws they pervert as the true enemies to sound government, justice, and freedom.” Also, see our post on Nov. 7, 2004, describing a rather sorry “defense of Shakespeare” and an indy film from 1992 called Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.