Positive and Negative Views Concerning Lawyers
The public view of lawyers comes from a number of sources. The news, television shows, movies, books, and personal experience influence people’s beliefs both in positive and negative ways. There are many examples both positive and negative that fuel people’s perceptions about the legal profession. On the negative side, the legal profession has earned a bad reputation because people believe lawyers are greedy, because people find the idea that lawyers defend criminals to be reprehensible, and because the language lawyers use is seen as too difficult to understand. On the positive side, groups like the Innocence Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center use the legal system to fight for justice for wrongfully convicted criminals or the civil rights of citizens.
Judging by the number of jokes about greedy lawyers, the idea that many lawyers are vultures, ready to take advantage of the unfortunate, is cemented firmly in the minds of many people. The image of the ambulance-chasing injury lawyer hounding accident victims at the scene of a crash, in the hospital, or at the funeral home soliciting services from the unfortunate for personal gain is a negative stigma difficult to shake. Though this type of solicitation is frowned on and illegal, President of the Rio Grande Valley Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse organization Linda McKenna says that barratry in Texas is illegal, but because of lax criminal prosecution has escalated (2012). In spite of current laws against barratry, it has a long history that includes some of history’s most beloved names, like Abraham Lincoln. In a paper about historical incidents of barratry, Anita Bernstein describes an incident during the Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. County of McLean trial in which Lincoln employed solicitation tactics that violated many of today’s ethical standards and laws. Bernstein writes that Lincoln’s methods of solicitation in this case included parties on both sides of the lawsuit, which today would result in him being disbarred in any of the 50 states (2008, p. 1546). This bad reputation has the unfortunate result of influencing people to avoid legal representation when they may need it the most. Law professor Lawrence Freedman writes that one of the reasons people fail to seek legal help is their belief that lawyers are greedy (2010).
Lawyers who argue for the rights of criminals suffer social stigmas because of their work. This is perhaps best expressed by what Lawyer John Kindley describes as a question “posed to criminal defense attorneys at cocktail parties all the time,” which is, “How can you defend someone you know is guilty?” (2009). When people ask this question, how a criminal defense lawyer can defend someone who is charged with a crime such as pedophilia, it is as if the questioner believes that a lawyer who defends the alleged criminal is condoning the crime. Criminal defense lawyer Scott Greenfield gives his answer to the cocktail party question about defending the guilty, saying, “Factual guilt plays no role whatsoever in our duty to zealously defend our client. There is never a moral dilemma once a lawyer assumes the duty to defend. Our function is not to judge, or impose our sensibilities or morality, but to defend” (Kindley 2009). However, lawyers representing clients in high-profile media cases often have their personal lives examined under a microscope as minutely as their clients are questioned in the courtroom. A good example is the media scrutiny of lawyer Joe Amendola, who represented ex-Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky in a child-molestation case. During the trial, one news agency reported about an event that took place in the personal life of Amendola in the 1990s, when he impregnated a teenage client and married her a couple of years later (Thompson, O’Keeffe, and Armstrong 2011). This desire to dissect the lives of criminal defense lawyers appears to be based on the idea that the public cannot imagine what kind of person could defend someone believed to be guilty, or the idea that there must be something unsavory about a person who could defend a criminal. Revelations about Amendola’s personal life have no relevance to the Sandusky case. It is as if the criminal defense lawyer is somehow guilty by association.
Despite negative perceptions people have about the legal profession, they also know there are positive things that lawyers do to help society. For example, The Innocence Project is an international “a national litigation and public policy organization” that employs DNA testing to overturn the court decisions of people who are wrongfully convicted of crimes (“About” n.d.). The Innocence Project is not the only legal group that dedicates itself to exonerating wrongly convicted people. Many other groups also exist, like Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Conviction, Arizona State University’s Justice Project, and Canada’s Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (“Other” n.d.). The Innocence Project website offers facts about exoneration in general as well as case profiles about people who have been exonerated. The project maintains a professional looking web page as well as a public presence on Facebook and other media outlets. A recent post on Facebook applauds recording artist Esperanza Spalding, who wrote a song about DNA exoneree Cornelius Dupree titled “Land of the Free” and donated part of her tour proceeds to The Innocence Project (“Innocence” 2012). This public presence and the work Projects like this do around the world help establish the legal profession as a force for good.
Another well-known group that gives people a positive perception about the legal profession is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). According to its website, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s mission is to battle bigotry and hate, using education and legal tactics to help vulnerable members of society find equality and justice (“What We Do” n.d.). The current priorities the SPLC deals with are children at risk, hate and extremism, immigrant justice, LGBT rights, and teaching tolerance (“What We Do” n.d.). One of the things the SPLC is most well known for is its tracking of active hate groups. By educating people and making sure the public is informed about hate group activities, the SPLC combats injustice and seeks to prevent injustice through the legal process in addition to education. On the SPLC website, the “Hate Map” shows a map of the United States with each state labeled with the number of known active hate groups. According to the SPLC, in 2011 there were 1018 active hate groups in the United States (“Hate Map” n.d.). On the page about legal cases involving hate and extremism, the organization notes that “These cases are funded entirely by our supporters; we accept no legal fees from the clients we represent” (“Hate and Extremism” n.d.). Lawyers working pro bono, or working without charging fees to clients, increases the positive perceptions people have about the legal profession.
Research about perceptions concerning the legal profession demonstrates that people have valid reasons for all of their beliefs. There is truth behind the idea of the greedy, ambulance-chasing lawyer, which is why laws regarding solicitation exist. People mistake criminal defense lawyers as somehow condoning the crime. The complex legalese of contracts causes people to believe, sometimes rightfully so, that lawyers and the clients they represent are purposefully mystifying customers in order to get away with things the customers are not comfortable with. Yet, people also see lawyers positively as champions in the cause for justice, like those who do pro bono work for the SPLC and Innocence Projects around the world. There is no single verdict about the law profession’s intrinsic goodness or badness.
About the Innocence Project (n.d.). Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law: Yeshiva University. Retrieved 1 Dec. 2012 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/
Bast, Carol M. (Oct. 1995). Lawyers Should Use Plain Language. Florida Bar Journal. Retrieved from http://www.afn.org/~afn54735/language1.html
Bernstein, A. (2008). Sanctioning the Ambulance Chaser. 41 Loy. LAL Rev. 1545.
Friedman, Lawrence (28 Sep. 2010). Alleged Lawyer Greed. New England Law School: Boston.
Hate and Extremism (n.d.). The Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 1 Dec 2012 from http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism
Hate Map (n.d.). The Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 1 Dec 2012 from http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-map
Innocence Project (29 Nov. 2012). Facebook. Retrieved 1 Dec 2012 from https://www.facebook.com/innocenceproject
Kindley, John (24 Nov. 2009). How Could You Defend Someone You Know is Guilty? People v. State. Retrieved from http://www.peoplevstate.com/?p=363
McKenna, Linda (3 Jan. 2012). New law puts ambulance chasers in the hot seat. The Southeast Texas Record. Retrieved from http://setexasrecord.com/arguments/240668-new-law-puts-ambulance-chasers-in-the-hot-seat
Other Projects Around the World (n.d.). The Innocence Project. Retrieved 1 Dec. 2012 from http://www.innocenceproject.org/about/Other-Projects.php
Thomson, Teri, O’Keeffe, Michael, and Armstrong, Kevin (15 Nov. 2011). Jerry Sandusky’s Lawyer, Joe Amendola, Got A 16-year-old Client Pregnant and Later Married Her. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/college/jerry-sandusky-lawyer-joe-amendola-16-year-old-client-pregnant-married-article-1.977873
What We Do (n.d.). Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 1 Dec 2012 from http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do