Nobody Loves Me

By Legal Eagle

Well, I thought I’d insert a gratuitous Portishead clip here of the song Sour Times from the Dummy album, which probably shows my age.

(Now cross-posted at Online Opinion – 7 September 2009)

This post is about why people don’t like lawyers. It has been inspired by a post at the Volokh Conspiracy which explores the same issue.

Orin Kerr cites two reasons why people don’t like lawyers, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Lawyers are seen as a “closed shop” who operate to protect themselves.
  2. Lawyers represent nasty and unpleasant human beings in controversial disputes.

There’s a long, long comment thread in which various people go into a lot of detail as to exactly why they don’t like lawyers as well.

Actually, many of the reasons why people don’t like lawyers overlap with the reasons why lawyers don’t like themselves very much. One of the causes of depression in lawyers is the contempt with which they are viewed by the public.

I think there’s a few reasons why no one loves a lawyer:

  1. People only go to see a lawyer when they are in trouble (so lawyers have this whiff of trouble following them around to begin with).
  2. Lawyers are expensive, and they have those six-minute billing units which really get up people’s noses. People also are suspicious of paying for something abstract like legal representation. It’s not like you get something concrete (compared with hiring a builder, where at least you get a house in the end).
  3. As Kerr says, lawyers flock together. Notice, for example, that the only professional in Australia who is not liable for professional negligence is the barrister, as decided by a bench of judges made up of…yes, mostly ex-barristers. That kind of decision does not do us any favours.
  4. Lawyers use complicated jargon which sounds annoying and makes people feel excluded from the legal system.
  5. By their very nature, the people who are attracted to law are generally adversarial. I include myself among this number. Adversarial people have a tendency to argue and rub people up the wrong way. (I also admit that I might do this occasionally).
  6. Some lawyers are arrogant. They think that because they know the law, they have the right to tell everyone else how to behave, or that they are better than other people. They use the law to bully others.
  7. And then the biggie, which is admirably covered by Kerr, is what I have called the “defending the indefensible” point, also dealt with in my post “The Mad, The Bad and The Sad” (which should be sub-titled “Why I don’t tell taxi drivers I’m a lawyer any more“). Lawyers defend other human beings whom the general public considers as objectionable. Or they prosecute actions which the general public may consider objectionable.

What can lawyers do about the fact that nobody loves them?

Some reform to the charging system would be one way of making clients more satisfied. Indeed, in this tightening financial situation, I gather that some firms have been forced by clients to drop the six-minute billing unit. People really resent paying a lawyer when they discover they paid $36 for that 4 minute phone conversation. I think I’d be pretty peeved too – I’d want to be sure that it was a significant 4 minute phone conversation.

Lawyers can also try to explain the law to other people and to demystify it, rather than wrapping it up in jargon. That is part of the reason why I blog – I really want to start a dialogue with people about the law, and help them learn about issues which they might not otherwise have known. I think lawyers need to learn the KISS principle sometimes. Making something twice as long as it ought to be and putting in rare and arcane words just for the sake of it is not what the law should be about. The law is about communicating with other people, either to prevent disputes from arising in the first place or to resolve disputes once they have arisen.

I think also people dislike the law when they see it being used to grind people down – for example, when a big firm tries to grind down an individual by throwing millions of discoverable documents at them in the hope of driving up the individual’s legal costs and forcing them to drop their action. As I’ve said previously, I think part of a good lawyer’s job is to talk the client out of actions like this. I don’t think that’s how the law should be used. “Rambo litigation” is also bad for lawyers themselves, and has been identified as a major cause of depression and dissatisfaction.

When I used to repossess houses for banks, I tried to behave in a way which was as humane as possible, because I do not think I could have lived with myself if I had done otherwise. Interestingly, I think I succeeded in making a number of settlements precisely because I tried to be decent to defendants. People are more willing to be reasonable if you are reasonable with them. There’s a time and place for aggression, for sure, but it’s not something that should be “switched on” all the time. So we have to sometimes watch our adversarial instincts – there is a time to fight and a time to put down arms.

I think lawyers also have to be really careful when making laws which suit themselves. As Kerr says, there is a perception that we are a “closed shop” and that we make rules for our own benefit.

As for the problem of representing unpleasant people – I think that’s just something that lawyers have to explain better – everyone deserves a quality representation. And it’s not for the lawyer to decide whether or not their client’s story is true or not. That’s the job of the judge or jury.

As I said in my Mad, Bad and Sad post:

I think every lawyer (if they are honest with themselves) has been in a situation where he or she has not been entirely comfortable with representing a client, and in fact, lawyers may have been in situations where they are very uncomfortable with instructions. I guess that I saw my job as to not only represent the client, but try and make sure that the client made appropriate and sensible arguments. But I know there are other lawyers who disagree with my point of view – I had a heated argument one day with another lawyer who insisted that it is our duty to put any argument in the strongest manner possible, no matter how repugnant it may seem, because that is what we are being paid to do.

To be a lawyer, you have to divorce yourself from your own personal instincts and morality to an extent. That’s something that “normal” people find creepy and unpleasant, hence the jokes about blood-suckers and sharks etc. But this objectivity does allow us to see both sides of the argument. And usually, there are two sides of the argument – it’s very rare that things are clear-cut.

Put yourself in a defendant’s shoes. If you hire a lawyer, do you want one who presents a half-baked defence because she thinks you’re guilty? Or do you want one who does the best job she can regardless? The fact is that lawyers are paid by clients to put the best argument forward that they can, and if they don’t feel they can do that, they shouldn’t accept the client’s money.

In conclusion, I think there are things lawyers can do to make the law more approachable to laypeople, and in the process, improve their own standing and esteem in the community. I think the measures I’ve mentioned above would be good for the community and good for lawyers themselves.

But ultimately, I think we’ll always be regarded with a little distrust because of our ability to twist words and facts, and our ability to make the indefensible defensible. People don’t like to see the foundations of their assumptions rocked like that. It’s just something we have to live with.

Update:

I’m with the zeitgeist, apparently, in my call for six minute units to be abolished. An article in The Australian today says:

There is now almost universal condemnation of lawyers charging for their services solely by reference to time. The condemnation is coming from clients, from the judiciary, from the regulators, from legal commentators, from young lawyers — and even from the partners in law firms themselves.

Notwithstanding the best efforts by some firms to find a viable alternative to billing by time, I am absolutely convinced firms will make little or no progress while they continue to use timesheets to record, measure, but most of all price their services.

It is the timesheet that is the root cause of our problem.

36 Comments

  1. Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    “I think we’ll always be regarded with a little distrust because of our ability to twist words and facts”

    Yes. ‘Lawyer tricks’, etc. I have no sympathy for this view of lawyers. People are too willing to think superficially (though usually it’s described as ‘common sense’) and resent anyone who wants to pick at words and meaning, tease out extrapolations, and so on. Philosophers get similar treatment, but because they have no direct impact, for them it’s ‘eccentricity’ or perplexing “thinking and arguing for its own sake”, something amusingly tolerated, not something of which to be wary.

    PS I love Portishead.

  2. Posted September 2, 2009 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    The sorts of things you mention (big companies grinding people down) cannot be blamed on the lawyers, but the legislators that either create or ignore loopholes that increase the chances of injustice, as well as those that don’t manage/fund the court system well.

    Ditto for cops who may have to enforce unjust laws. They too are merely working within a system.

    It’s a bit like an adage from my own field, IT – people shouldn’t hate computers, they should hate lazy programmers.

    Mind you, there are likeable lawyers, and the more evil corporate ones. A college-mate quit a corporate career to take a much lower-paid half-time job serving a region of farmers (can’t remember if it was local or state government). A child and a farm, both requiring time, may have helped the decision.

    And we also can differentiate, as in most professions, between those who get into it because of a calling, or because the money looks attractive.

  3. jc
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    the people who are attracted to law are generally adversarial

    My family member certainly fits that bill. S/he’d argue and bicker about complaining about his/her arguing and bickering.

    in fact there isn’t a thing s/he hasn’t bickered over.

  4. Posted September 3, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    The problem fundamentally is that at heart the great bulk of people know that the idea of someone gaining advantage over another in what is an exercise of public power (even arbitrations are usually backed firmly by all the instruments of public enforcement) through something that ought to be utterly irrelevant- having a better lawyer, having lots of money, or very often a meeting of the two.

    The fact that there are a myriad of laws (including principles upheld in common law) but in some cases people can expect them to be complied with and enforced, while in others ordinary people have no realistic recourse, can also seem bizarre and a little corrupt.

    The Nurembourg defence just doesn’t always wash either- if the actions you undertook involved destroying the lives of other people with your skills, you could seek to explain this away by reference to a well rehearsed encyclopaedia of positivist jurisprudence, but surprisingly people, some of them very reasonable (and contrary to the self sustaining narrative of lawyers, just as smart) and more than capable of intellectually grappling with the essential beliefs that underpin that jurisprudence) may not accept that this link provides sufficient moral or ethical immunity.

    I have been that person, running those cases, questioning why I was there, and I still don’t have easy answers. People deserve a fair trial, and lawyers play an important role in the system we have presently constituted, but what we have is highly imperfect. It does not constitute rule of law, but rather rule of {law + ability to call thereon}.

    Just my thoughts from my own battles with career, ethical and personal demons, some of which wear wigs…

  5. Posted September 3, 2009 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    “is not right” was meant to be on the end of para 1 above… Clear evidence I was rambling without focus!

  6. Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Ambulance chasing.
    Acting for opportunisitc damages claimants.
    Giving advice in a manner that enlarges the bill.
    Charging for unsolicited advice.
    Charging to fix technical issues of their own making.
    What is said in their office having little resemblance to what they put on paper.

    Gee, why would lawyers be detested?

  7. Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    .. and that is just simple lawyers. The acts of dickheadsmanship committed by judges would drive people to things like pipe-bombing the judge at home.

    (And just who ever allowed magistrates anywhere NEAR a courtroom?)

  8. skepticlawyer
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes. That’s a description that would stay with you for many a long day. I have a nasty feeling it’s true. I’m also aware that magistrates of both varieties are often to be found in the same courthouse…

    Also: I’ll second LE on clients being economical with the truth with lawyers, along with misrepresenting the content of documents. It’s very frustrating.

  9. MikeM
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Many lawyers see their brief as trying to win an argument rather than trying to solve the problem. This can be especially irritating in commercial negotiation. It’s interesting that there is a general trend towards alternate dispute resolution in commercial law. Even in the context of criminal law, we are seeing alternatives like drug courts targeted towards solving the problem rather than punishing a criminal.

    Interesting observations on repossessing houses, LE. Banks are a significant factor in giving lawyers a bad name. You only need to look at fiascos like the Westpac Loans affair, and the current Storm storm to name just two, where deep pockets and armies of lawyers create a very bad impression.

    Would I be alone in thinking that Malcolm Turnbull would be a more effective Opposition leader if he weren’t so lawyerish at times?

    But even if nobody else loves you, LE, experimental psychologists do. They need lawyers for certain experiments: there are some things even lab rats won’t do.

  10. Hugivza
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    “People also are suspicious of paying for something abstract like legal representation. It’s not like you get something concrete (was the pun intended?) (compared with hiring a builder, where at least you get a house in the end).”

    The problem of abstraction is not limited to the legal profession, but covers other professions such as engineering, or architecture which the builder or the client would probably have had to have hired to complete a design for the house at least to meet applicable codes and regulations. Engineers for example have long ranted about their lack of comparitive status with other professions, particularly against say the law or medicine, largely because the terms “engineer” can be used by almost anyone with half a brain (maybe even less on reflection), and engineering more especially can be performed by anyone with a skerrig of common sense, and a little grasp of elementary mathematics. This is probably because as a profession, engineers have not long evolved from their “blacksmith” past, whereas barbering and bloodletting have long faded in medicine’s past. Whatever, the legal profession is not the only profession who has a problem with their self image.

    I think the real problem for the law is that is not perceived as
    a “good news” profession by the public at large – lawyers are only required when the excrement either has, or is about to, hit the temperature modulation device either personally or corporately.

    It is also a myth that corpoporate litigation is driven predominantly by the legal profession in the pursuit of fees, as much corporate litigation is driven by clients who seek redress through the courts because they can either afford to or because they feel slighted over some issue, and pursue matters contrary to advice.

    Since rocket science will probably be off of the agenda, I hear the call of plumbing in the next life as I will be able to direct the excrement in the right direction, and perhaps install the temperature modulation device. I suppose that professional indemnity considerations may still require legal services though, so perhaps advanced macrame beckons.

  11. Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    “Malcolm Turnbull would be a more effective Opposition leader if he weren’t so lawyerish at times?”

    Probably- Barwick was undeniably a brilliant barrister, but didn’t really cut it in politics.

  12. pete m
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Here’s a case that drove me somewhat wild at legal costs:

    http://archive.sclqld.org.au/qjudgment/2009/QSC09-247.pdf

    Here’s the number:

    “Apart from the Public Trustee, the total legal costs of
    the parties for this proceeding were therefore at least $544,000.”

    Estate was worth $2mil, and the decision increased the benefit to 1 of the beneficiaries, by …

    guess?

    Answer:

    $30,000.

    And they couldn’t sort this out without a Judge!

    I’m sure the lawyers here tried to negotiate a resolution, given I know a few of them, but their clients fought on, and spent $514,000+ more than what was eventually ordered. So the 4 main beneficiaries will now all be out of pocket $125,000 because they couldn’t agree on either accepting what the testatrix wanted them to have, or working out a minor adjustment.

    FFS

    I’ve been involved in a similar situation where it was clear the law wouldn’t support a change, and we were negotiable, but the other side refused to even respond, went to Court, lost, and lost badly (ie pay our costs). Sadly, they were brothers who probably don’t talk to each other anymore. All over a few dollars when they were all already quite well off and getting lots on top of that. So silly.

    Anyway, re ambulance chasers comment, I’m sick of hearing it. Let’s get ird of lawyers then and leave it to those compassionate insurers to decide what’s fair compensation. You first.

    Lawyers are hated because we are blamed for the law, rip off clients who trusted us, and are quite often incompetent.

    cheers.

  13. Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Regards lawyers saying one thing, and putting something different in writing, I was NOT meaning the scenario where in the interim lawyer is confronted with the reality that client has neglected to mention some deal-changing facts.

    Was referring to scenario where client & lawyer have a (obviously) verbal discussion in lawyer’s office, culminating in an understanding of what was discussed.

    Subsequently the lawyer will write a letter to the client, this letter being more or less a written record of the verbal consultation.

    The letter will have a differing understanding of the contents and outcome of the meeting.

    This happens regularly, and cannot possibly be a misunderstanding by the lawyer.

    It is a blatant attempt to retrospectively alter history or facts.

    In no other scenario, where I have a serious uninterrupted conversation with an intelligent human, and a clear understanding is reached, does the other party ever even TRY to put on paper a “recollection” that significantly differs from what was understood at the time.

    And these pricks are supposed to be on my side.

  14. Paul Parker
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Always enjoyed the logical approach of good legal reasoning, even when it appeared leading towards rather illogical conclusions, which BTW do usually read as my poor understanding.

    After the attempts to prevent our obtaining the required judicial determinations, conclusion of our legal issues no closer to resolution.

    Such as our problems still being played out with national news coverage of widespread consequences of the ongoing Commonwealth policy in the Northern Territory, and to a lesser extent in some other states.

    Our family remain the only ones who sort, and still seek, what the NT Supreme Court and other parties all agreed as required, the full presentation and judicial consideration of the serious legal and Constitutional issues arising issues.

    The Commonwealth remains not prepared to see these legal issues presented and determined, so denies us legal aid.

    The Commonwealth – and agencies, continue today to deny our right to live together as a family, our right to visit each other, or our rights to receive other visitors of our choice, in our acknowledged family home, naturally the government is doing this to help us…

    Needless to say, find myself wonder just what is the law and lawyers are for ?

  15. Posted September 3, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    LE, I am well known for quite robust written replies to my lawyers.

    For various reasons, I have changed law firm on multiple occassions. I am no stranger to issuing marching orders to a law firm. Perhaps one of these days I should post on the topic.

  16. Hugivza
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    “For various reasons, I have changed law firm on multiple occassions. I am no stranger to issuing marching orders to a law firm. Perhaps one of these days I should post on the topic”.

    I worked for a private company of note where the majority owner and Chairman sought to initiate a litigation led economic recovery, and because most practitioners at some point had the temerity to disagree with a myopic viewpoint however forcefully put, or to point out that pleadings require some skill in drafting, changed law firms and counsel at will. Like the Queen in Alice, “off with the heads” was heard often, although the smart ones usually left before the inevitable execution.

    Changing law firms may easy, but whether always wise may beg the question. At least it keeps the removalists busy in moving discovery documents.

  17. Posted September 3, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I think that lawyers, to understand how frustrated their clients get with their services, should have to work with business/management consultants or similar to experience the misery of:

    – being told that their problem is infinately more serious than they thought, and to be treated like idiots for not engaging said experts int he first place;
    – being given a solution that is not only wildly impractical, but completely mucks up the wider scheme of things and is painfully difficult to implement and creates a whole lot of problems more serious than the one you were trying to fix
    – to be billed unexpectedly high amounts for largely irrelevant advice, and for the privilege of doing all the leg/grunt work.

    All the while being told how fabulous the experts providing the service are.

    I tell myself, that after all the sheer irritation and the periods spent locking myself in the loos for a nice calm scream, I shall come out of this with more empathy for my clients.

  18. Adrien
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Nobody Loves Me

    Aawwww 🙁 Don’t worry we love you.

    Does the emnity towards lawyers in general really hurt? Serious question.

    Haven’t had much experience with needing lawyers. I hate doctors and dentists. 🙂

  19. Dave Bath
    Posted September 3, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Agree with [email protected], apart from the doctors and dentists thing.

    I suppose it’s a tendency to stereotype rather than take the range of particulars into account. – something that affects any demographic.

    But my opinion /may/ be colored by the fact that most of the lawyers I engage with socially aren’t your stereotypical greasy pole-climbers, and I’ve always been happy with those who have represented me.

    Financiers, (apart from the micro-credit types) on the other hand… and senior managers….

    But those types aren’t classified in ANZSCO as professionals. ooh, but they aren’t classified by the ANZSCO as professionals! While lawyers are in a subcategory of professionals that include social and welfare workders. (See this). So, it’s a subgroup that you legal folk should be happy with: at least the ABS puts you in a “warm and fuzzy” category!

  20. Posted September 4, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m suspicious of doctors and dentists because of bad experiences. Funnilly enough this make it easier picking the good ones.

  21. L Plate Lawyer
    Posted September 6, 2009 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    to Pete M @ 17

    Having read the judgment, I think the deceased’s deaf son had a pretty reasonable argument to seek a larger contribution from the estate.

    Also, I think the daughter (I think – I must have missed the paragraph outlining the relationship) who has the husband with parkinson’s and the son suffering from autism may have had some fairly strong reasons to disagree with losing any of her share of the estate required to make the additional payment to the deaf son.

  22. pete m
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    @ 32 L Plate lawyer

    Yes they did have strong competing claims, but should also have appreciated that a Court is not going to turn the distribution on its head just because of that. Even a significant change would have cost less than the lawyers’ fees.

    Adrien – it doesn’t affect me at all re general arttitude to lawyers. Anyone who stereotypes like that has little respect from me. People who make fun of lawyers in public my presence though, do get a return serve!

  23. Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    A lawyer joke that lawyers can enjoy:

    A lawyer at a cocktail party. Next to her two people were chatting and it came out that one of them was a doctor.

    Well as soon as that information was released the other person started in with a huge litany of complaints about his back and his hairy nose, his flat feet and his halitosis. What can I do about it doctor?

    The doctor tried to be polite and slowly extricated himself from the conversation. Later he asked the lawyer, “Do you ever get people asking you to work for nothing at these things?”

    “Yes”, says the lawer, wanna know what I do about it?”

    “Yeah”

    “Well I just send ’em a bill for the time”

    “Really?”

    “Yep”

    So the next day the doctor writes out a bill for $35 and sends it to the annoying and unfortunate bore from the party the night before. Feeling pleased with himself he goes to lunch.

    And returns to find a bill from the lawyer: $150. 🙂

  24. Posted September 8, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Adrien: I’ll pay that one!

    (and will use it as extensively as I am able)

  25. Posted September 8, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I hope I didn’t piss off any lawyers. I think it’s fair enough. People who ask you to work for free at social occassions are a bore. I try never to ask people what they do for a living. I also try never to answer that question myself.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*