Law, practice and shame

By Legal Eagle

This is a post which has been a long time in the brewing (I started it back in May but was interrupted by exams, book launches, and book proposals) but hopefully it’s better for the brewing.

There have been a number of posts, articles and incidents in recent months which have made me think about being a lawyer, thinking like a lawyer and the practice of law.

First I’ll start out with an anecdote. I went to a mothers’ dinner for mothers from my daughter’s class. I mentioned that I was working full time, and the other mothers asked me what I did. “I’m a university lecturer,” I said. “What do you teach?” asked one mother. “Um, law,” I replied. “Think contracts, trusts, property law and remedies,” I replied. Talk about conversation killer. The only worse conversation killer was when someone asked me later what my PhD was about. That’s why I prevaricate at social events and generally just say I teach at university. People look at you quite differently when you say you’re a lawyer – with a mix of awe and horror – perhaps they think you’re about to issue them with a 6 minute bill for the conversation? Or that you’ll sue them if they put a foot out of line? I have been thinking that I might start to make up alternative careers in order not to kill conversations. What about spy? Or something exciting like artist? Why does confessing that you’re a lawyer kill conversations?

I guess there are a number of reasons.

(1) Lawyers think differently

Kat Gallow at Curl wrote a great post on this recently. She theorised that lawyers are argumentative, adversarial, questioning, rule-based and obsessed with detail. Actually I believe that I might have been argumentative, adversarial and questioning from birth but certainly becoming a lawyer has exacerbated these qualities. I am by nature a ‘big picture’ person, so becoming a lawyer has taught me how to deal with masses of detail in a way which didn’t always come naturally to me. Kat noted that thinking like a lawyer extends to her home. It may extend to all of my interactions without me even being aware of it. When I’m driving to work, I mostly think about is complex legal questions, for example. I can understand that this might be a bit off-putting, and probably seems very odd to around 99.99% of the population.

(2) Lawyers do not have a positive image; in fact there may be shame associated with announcing that one is a lawyer

A while back, Ken Parish wrote a post at Club Troppo about how some people are ashamed of being a lawyer, linking to a post from Private Law Tutor. Yes, there can be a certain shame associated with being a lawyer. I wrote a post a long time ago (the Mad, the Bad and the Sad) about how every time I got into a taxi a while back, I’d get into an argument with the taxi driver after I’d confessed to my profession. I would immediately be accused of getting guilty people off for crimes they had committed. Now, obviously that’s not so much of a concern for me because I have not touched criminal law with a barge pole since the blue ink incident. But hey, I did repossess houses for a few years, and that’s also right down there as a Not Very Nice Kind of Legal Practice. People don’t really like lawyers much (as I’ve outlined here) — at least, they don’t like them until they get into trouble. Then a good lawyer is worth his or her weight in gold.

We’re seen as shifty and money-hungry. The shifty thing comes from the fact that we argue the case for whomever pays us, regardless of whether we personally agree with it or not, and sometimes, we have to defend the indefensible. So I think that’s part of what freaks people out when you confess to being a lawyer. The immediate image of “lawyer” seems to be of a shonky defence barrister getting a client off when he believes the client is guilty (at least, if the taxi drivers are anything to go by). The money-hungry thing comes from the damned billable hours. Many people have a bad lawyer-and-billing story. I also think it’s very hard to quantify what a lawyer actually does for you. It’s not like someone putting a new washer in your tap or baking you a loaf of bread. It’s more about entrusting someone to think about your problem for you, and it’s hard to put a concrete value to that.

(c) Who’s still in the law?

So you might ask me — if you feel uncomfortable being a lawyer, why are you still one? Well, I love the law despite its downsides. But it is true that lawyers are notoriously prone to depression. It actually starts back in law school, but is exacerbated once lawyers go into practice. Which made me think: I’m over 10 years out of law school. Who do I know who is still a solicitor?

A couple of weeks back, a uni friend of mine who now works in Hong Kong contacted me to ask me if I knew anyone in a small or medium law firm in Australia which might be interested in giving a job to a friend of his. “Who do you know who works in a firm?” he asked. I thought about it. I know two people who work in London, one who works in Frankfurt, one who will be working in Edinburgh (I think you know her too). There are about six people I know well who still work in firms in Melbourne; however, all but one of them work in very large firms or boutique firms. Everyone else has left firms. I know a lot of people at the Bar, a lot of people in academia (naturally), a few people in Community Legal Centres, a few people in government, a few people in-house, and a lot of people who have given up on law altogether (a merchant banker, a jewellery designer, a DJ, a writer, some school teachers, a motivational speaker, some accountants and actuaries, etc etc, you get the picture).

It seems that this fits with the general picture given by the Graduate Careers Australia survey which showed that 64% of recent law graduates were not practicing law. I look at my classes and I wonder who among them will actually practice, and who will do other things. And if people do practice, for how long will they continue to do so? I suppose that it won’t matter to the firms, as long as some stick. In fact they actually want lawyers on the lower levels to drop off and go elsewhere, I guess: not everyone can be a partner.

Anyway, my ongoing project is to educate the world that many lawyers can be decent people, and that I don’t bite the heads off small animals for breakfast. Failing that, I shall just invent increasingly colourful alternative careers such as balloonist (never mind that I’m scared of heights).


  1. Posted July 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I fear this thread is going to degenerate into competitive sheep-shagging/kiwi jokes…

    Shouldn’t have posted that pic. So, here’s another one – a standard Roman windchime [NSFW]:

    It’s not the most amusing bit of Roman decoration I’ve seen, though. That came down to a choice between a translucent ceramic dinner setting where all the bits stacked together in the shape of the appropriate bits of male and female anatomy (easier to wash up, I suppose), and a windchime that featured a gladiator doing battle with his own dick… which had transformed into a ravening wolf.

    The Romans would have put Sigmund out of business.

  2. JC
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    JC, oh debauchery goes on everywhere – in fact, ain’t that the point? I’m sure there’s heaps of homosexuality in Islamic countries despite some of them protesting that they don’t have any gays in their country.

    Iran possibly doesn’t. They kill off theirs by hanging them in the public square. That regime is an animal.

    I’m absolutely positive that you get people of all kinds of sexual persuasion in all societies.

    I’m sure. One of my former clients ended up dead as a result of getting involved in a group sex thing and the hubby of the wife killed him off. This dude was really straitlaced so I dunno what the hell happened to him. It was in the Melbourne papers a few years back. He was a client when I was working in oz in the 80s.

    Funny old world.

    But we can’t have statutes of satyrs shagging sheep in the foyer (personally, I’m glad of that – I’m an open-minded person, but I draw the line at bestiality).

    Dunno, I’ve never wanted to look at it but I believe there’s bestiality on the web by just doing a google search and clicking the button. It may not be in the JPMorgan’s foyer, but it’s pretty easily available from all accounts.

    I doubt sheep-shagging young men go around boasting of their acts publicly either.

    God is my witness. I was reading the WSJ at the desk in the early 90’s and they had a bunch of strange stats. One was that 25% of young rural men in NZ had had sex with sheep. Now I read this several time in case I had it wrong as the figure was staggering.

    Do we have pollies openly parading with their concubines and lovers while their wives stay home?

    Berlusconi, Gaddafi, the Sth African prez. That’s a start.

    Do we have sacred prostitutes in our churches and temples? Do we have a society where an emperor can make his dead gay lover a god? Do we have famous mainstream poets who write about hot threesomes? Do our gods shag everything in sight (woman, man, beast)? Like seriously, these guys are something else. It’s the openness of it, JC. It’s something we don’t have. We’re much more hung up about being public about these things.

    Well I think openness is one thing, but I’m not so sure that’s hugely important though is it? What is important is if it happens in a much reduced way and I’m not so sure it does. Perhaps the bestiality thing is a more “specialized” field these days, but I dunno. 🙂 Perhaps Mel could shed better light on it as he seems up with the latest. 🙂

  3. JC
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    How the hell did this thread end up here? Fme.

  4. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    JC, I couldn’t possibly comment 😉

  5. Posted July 3, 2012 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure how you can have a conversation about evolutionary psychology and human sexuality without talking about bonobos, one of our closet genetic relatives. The other species that is just as close to humans is less extreme but still their mating tends to be promiscuous, with females mating with multiple males in her community during estrus. So if anything, it appears we’re genetically tuned to being whores.

  6. Posted July 3, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    And to bring things back on topic, I think it’s clear my psychology elective has provided more interesting conversation topics than all my actual law subjects combined.

  7. Posted July 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Mel on the prostitutes.
    I’ve found them to be salt of the earth types.
    And they are ideal customers. My ideal pub would have only ethic asian & hookers for a clientele.

    Which brings me to an occupation I can add to the list of the semi-shunned:


    Try announcing that to your local MP & see just what sort of conduct unbecoming they come out with, before they even find out why you’re trying to make an appointment.

  8. derrida derider
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    … a lot of [evolutionary psychologist] practitioners need a sound thrashing with a statistics textbook before being allowed out in public.

    Its not so much practitioners where the problem lies – they tend to be cautious Popperians who know the difference between a testable hypothesis and a “just so” story. Its the popularisers and their followers who have discredited this field by seizing on ideologically convenient just-so stories (yes, KC, I’m looking at you). It’s no good thrashing them with a statistics textbook because they’d be incapable of reading it..

  9. Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Someone just to the right of JC (as if that’s possible).

  10. Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    SATP: Publican. I hadn’t even thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Your very existence would allow certain pollies to get their fun police wowsering thing going.

  11. Posted July 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Ok LE, seque from the “oldest profession” back to suits (although some versions of the joke have politician rather than lawyer – still dealing with law though).

    Professionals arguing about which profession was the oldest – using biblical authority … Doctor said “taking adam’s rib out is a medical procedure, medicine is the oldest profession”. Architect said “Separating out heaven and earth from the chaos is design and building … So architecture is the oldest”. Then the lawyer/politician pipes up with “and who do you think created the chaos in the first place?”

    It’s odd that the sages are lawgivers, create order, but the joke is about laws causing chaos – it resonates, even though it shouldn’t be true in theory – and indeed, in practice. The use of lawyerly arguments in criminal cases is understandable, but it is the lawyers (and accountants) who exploit loopholes (tax laws especially), against fair dealing, who give “normal” lawyers a bad name – those who write the fine print specifically to trap people, those who use the letter of the law to thwart the spirit (aka “The Vibe”) of the law. I suspect the weasels who are letter-not-spirit types bring both the profession, and indeed the system of laws, into disrepute, do create chaos rather than just order.

  12. Posted November 18, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    🙂 I do think that you had a good point here
    (2) Lawyers do not have a positive image; in fact there may be shame associated with announcing that one is a lawyer
    I just think everything will be better with the new generation of lawyers.

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