Fight press bigotry against lawyers

Recently the media have been comparing lawyers to insectoid vermin. Robert Sayer says the profession should stand up and defend itself.

SOLICITORS are "as sexy as a bucket of cockroaches" (Daily Telegraph 16 January). "Legal aid pays lawyers as they do the work, in effect giving lawyers interest free-loans" (Stephen Orchard, Radio 4, 15 January).

For pure offensiveness there is little to equal being compared with a bucket of cockroaches. The very idea that the Legal Aid Fund gives lawyers interest-free loans is so ludicrous I almost crashed my car when I heard those words spoken by the head of the Legal Aid Board on a respected consumer programme.

If similar derogatory remarks and mistruths were said about any other group in society, every decent-minded person would instantly condemn them as bigotry or crass propaganda. Yet when lawyers are the target, it is acceptable. Why is this?

Journalists are busy people with deadlines. Cliches save time and effort. Papers sell by reflecting as closely as they can the views and prejudices of their target readership. Thus, to one paper single mothers are all saints, while to another they are all sinners.

Unfortunately, the fact that the public think all lawyers are rogues and charlatans is taken as a basic premise by virtually every section of the media. That we delay cases, generate unnecessary litigation and do nothing without charging exorbitant fees is taken as read and rarely critically examined.

Yet the truth is almost the exact opposite. It is the skill of solicitors that keeps our hopelessly over-complicated legal system moving at all. We constantly try to persuade clients to treat litigation as the very last resort.

For virtually every solicitor, pro bono is an everyday reality, not a once-a-year publicity stunt. Every survey of individual clients reveals that the vast majority of them hold their own personal lawyer in high regard. I think it is time we made the effort to persuade journalists to rethink their solicitor stereotype.

I understand the temptation for busy solicitors to shrug and get on with their work, but this is a serious issue. The constant repetition of anti-lawyer cliches is undermining not just lawyers, but the law itself. The rule of law is the cornerstone upon which democracy is built. It is also the only protection private individuals have against an over-powerful state.

Events around the world regularly demonstrate how fragile any society is once respect for the law is lost. It is not exaggerating to say we all have a duty to speak up and complain every time we see or hear lawyers being unfairly denigrated.

If those of us who know when a news story or comment in the press is untrue do nothing, we as a profession and society as a whole may live to regret it