Sitting there, as you scrape the bottom of any barrel, are the lawyers.
We sit alongside the estate agents and the tabloid journalists as those with the jobs that people claim to hate. Most good and sensible people seem to be agreed that it is perfectly fine to dislike the legal profession. It is an utterly acceptable social prejudice.
Why is this so? In some ways, it is a strange hostility. Few lawyers work on their own account; the usual situation is that a lawyer is acting for someone else. The classic model is that the lawyer merely offers expertise in the law and advocacy which lay people do not have themselves. However, it is the lawyer who is deplored, and not their client. To be annoyed that a person or company has engaged “bloody lawyers” or that a situation “has gone legal” is perhaps to implicitly absolve those instructing the lawyers from any real blame.
This disdain goes beyond the lawyers of other people. Many people dislike their own lawyers and – quite genuinely – cannot see the point or the value in what they do. A letter costing £300, or a conveyance taking three weeks too many to complete, seems to be counter-intuitive. What is actually being paid for? And why are clients placed into situations where they feel compelled to pay significant amounts of money for what appears to be little concrete output?
But what makes this antipathy particularly odd is that it is often accompanied by sentimentality about the heroic and defiant lawyer. Whether it be Atticus Finch or Perry Mason there is a general sense that whilst lawyers in general in bad, particular lawyers “on the right side” can be very good. This positive sense is adopted even in personal life: when there is a certain type of crisis, the first thought of many people is to get the best lawyer they can (even if for various reasons such a lawyer is not available, or even in existence). And any practicing lawyer will tell you of the friends who diss the legal profession one moment and seek free legal advice the next.
So what can explain why lawyers are hated? One answer perhaps lies in the very nature of law.
The stuff of law consists of words and coercion. Lawyers, like wizards and witches with spells, believe that certain words when set out in formal and learned ways can have particular consequences. For lawyers these words are contained in contracts, statutes, writs, wills, questions and speeches in court, and so on. But unlike magical folk, the lawyers’ words can and do lead to real-world effects: for example, the bailiff at your door, or the guard taking you to the cell. The job of the lawyer is deal with special forms of words, and the worldly implications that those words can have in any given situation.
This, of course, is generally lost on the client. The business person cannot see why there has to be a forty-page agreement. The defendant cannot see why their advocate cannot simply lie to the jury. The parent is being denied access to their child. All the client can see – or imagine – is a person saying unhelpful and unwelcome things, and then expecting to be paid for it.
That said, it is actually difficult to imagine someone becoming a lawyer just because of greed. For the same qualifications, there are more lucrative careers in business and finance. Those lawyers who do earn vast amounts – QCs and City lawyers – are exceptional and their “success” usually down to random good fortune: there are many better lawyers who never become “fat cats”. Any rapacity is not a feature of lawyers as a whole, though it may be a quality of certain lawyers.
The reason why lawyers are generally disliked may not be down to their actual conduct or their personal qualities. It is instead because law is both powerful and – in the main – invisible. Law leaves traces in certain documents and speech acts, and it can manifest itself in the coercive actions of hard-faced individuals; but generally law is equally threatening and elusive.
It is not so much that lawyers are hated, but that law itself is feared and mysterious. That this is the case is unfortunate, and it is an entirely fair criticism that many lawyers do not do more to promote the public understanding of law. Of course, barriers to lay understanding can suit the interests of lawyers. Lawyers have no general interest in enabling potential clients to work out their own legal problems. And, so to that extent, lawyers only have themselves to blame.