Harangued by the public and pot shots by the press – its a lawyer's life

Despite all the profession's attempts to counter it, the public image of lawyers is slipping. As the joke goes, how can you tell the difference between a dead snake and a dead lawyer lying in the road? There are skidmarks in front of the snake.

But it is probably no surprise that two thirds of lawyers think the public has a negative image of the profession, as revealed in The Lawyer survey. And, according to the Law Society, this belief is justified.

Gerald Newman, deputy director of corporate and regional affairs at the society, said: “The image of the profession is not as strong as we would like it to be. Lawyers have always had a bad press. It's inevitable really – people don't generally enjoy going to see lawyers.”

But things may not be as bad as lawyers perceive them to be. Law Society research shows that although the profession as a whole is seen unfavourably, the majority of the public is satisfied or very satisfied with their individual solicitors.

These findings are supported by Robert Rakison, a solicitor-partner at the UK office of US firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius. “I think that in the recession lawyers were seen as a necessary evil, but people are doing more business now and lawyers are seen as an essential part of the team,” he said.

Over a third of respondents to the survey also thought the profession was unfairly represented in the media. Rakison said the public perception is often based on a few high-profile cases, in which lawyers seem to be getting guilty people off the hook, cases which have nothing to do with the daily realities of working in a law firm.

He has been involved in a high-profile case in the UK and takes a pragmatic view on press coverage. “Saying lawyers are unfairly treated is being over-sensitive,” he said. “What's new about being sniped at by the Press? Lawyers don't get a rougher ride than anyone else. The Press treats anything that presents itself as a moving target unfairly. No news is bad news, and any comment is better than none.”

Sue Stapely, head of press and public affairs at the Law Society, said: “All professions feel as though they are badly treated by the Press. It is for individual solicitors, especially members of specialist groups, to ensure their interests are represented in a fair way.”

But public dissatisfaction does not stem solely from media scandals. The Solicitors' Complaints Bureau received 19,000 complaints against solicitors in 1995. And the National Consumer Council receives a “steady stream” of complaints against the legal profession, most of which are from people who have failed to get satisfaction from the SCB.

Marlene Winfield, senior policy officer for legal services at the NCC, said most complaints are about costs rising above client expectations and for inadequate work. “There is a very high degree of dissatisfaction with complaints handling, in particular that solicitors do very little to address the complaint,” she said.

A Law Society spokeswoman said the SCB is criticised as being far too bureaucratic, biased and not independent.

In response, the Law Society intends to replace the SCB with an Office for Supervision of Solicitors, in an attempt to separate complaints handling and professional regulation and to beef up its disciplinary powers. But the new body will still be part of the society, despite the fact that 67 per cent of respondents think there should be external regulation and scrutiny.

Stapely said a lot of Law Society work is aimed at remedying the public image problem.

She said: “We are attempting to do this not by a cosmetic veneer but by measures aimed at ensuring the solicitors' profession provides a responsible, affordable and user-friendly service to clients.”

Winfield agrees the profession needs to be proactive in improving its public image. She said: “Lawyers need to adopt a more client-centred approach. They need to think more carefully about how they communicate with clients, particularly when discussing what is going to be achieved and costs.

“The past few years have seen a large decline of public trust in the UK. It could be a continuing decline unless solicitors improve client care.”