COLUMN: Lawyers don't receive the respect they've earned

Tuesday, April 27, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:27 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Commensurate with the sharp decline in the public's opinion of lawyers, among the most quoted defamation of attorneys is found in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Act IV: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." This is guaranteed to elicit chuckles and more than a few nods of approval. I must admit to finding it humorous upon occasion also.

Although never matching that of the clergy or physicians, throughout much of American history, lawyers have enjoyed the trust and respect of the people, an accommodation seen in the frequency of their selection to serve in public office. But, the last thirty-odd years have seen a marked decline in public opinion. A 1973 Harris Poll reported 24 percent had "a great deal of confidence" in law firms, , but that figure had dropped to 7 percent in 1997.

Most probable among the factors affecting the decline in the public's perception of attorneys are the steep increase in lawyer fees along with a commensurate rise in the number of lawyers — fairly or unfairly, they are seen as overpaid and overabundant. Frivolous lawsuits (McDonald's hot coffee, anyone?), high profile trials in which it appeared to most that justice was not served, tasteless television personal injury advertising and lawyers elected to public office behaving badly are all contributors to the public's increasingly negative view.

Lawyers are not without fault in this sinking public esteem, but they have not been well served by the print media, movies or television. Lawyers, primarily those serving the defense, are too often portrayed as dishonest, sleazy and opportunistic, caring only for sending criminals back onto the streets while extracting exorbitant fees. Many feel that the law profession has been less than diligent in policing itself. Nevertheless, as there are rotten apples galore in other walks of life, let us not judge the book merely by its soiled cover.

Why am I defending the legal profession, you may ask? In all fairness, the honest, hard working, dedicated attorneys outnumber those whose high-profile shenanigans are grist for the lawyer jokes and profligate attorneys. Additionally, those who perform the unheralded but fundamental roles on the bottom rung of the system — city and county court prosecutors, defenders and judges — merit a better fate.

In late February, I received a notice from the circuit court judge of Boone County. I had been selected as a prospective juror for a specified period and, if physically qualified to perform, I should return the notice stating any period of unavailability. I complied, and shortly I was given something that ranges between periodontal surgery and a month's visit from Dog the Bounty Hunter in acceptability level: a summons to jury duty.

Seriously, while it can be a very long day and the hardest $6 one ever earned if not selected as a juror, the process restores one's faith in our judicial system. Jury duty is orderly and well executed, from the introduction by the court marshal, the short film of explanation, the assignment of juror numbers and movement to the courtroom to meet with the judge and the trial and defense attorneys.

One gains a true appreciation for the judicial system in the "voir dire" (translation: "to speak the truth") process in the selection of jurors. This process consists of examination in court by the judge as well as the defense and trial attorneys to determine the bias or preconceived notions among those randomly selected for the jury pool. In voir dire, both the defense and the prosecution may object to the seating of a juror and, in some jurisdictions, the attorneys may challenge for cause.

The amount that the attorneys and the presiding judge take their responsibilities seriously is apparent from beginning to end. Prospective jurors are asked relevant questions and are also probed for experience, employment, mental convictions and beliefs that may relate to their acceptability for impanelling. The exchange is spirited and informative.

I won't insult the reader's intelligence by insinuating that a summons to jury duty is "as welcome as the flowers in May". However, it is as important and necessary a civic duty as one is obligated to perform. Amendment VI of the Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, while Amendment VII preserves the right of trial by jury in other than criminal cases. The guardians of that right are found in the trenches of our city and county courts — the dedicated trial and defense attorneys and judges steeped in the law.

Consequently, what do you do the next time you feel the urge to laugh at lawyer jokes? Answer: Stop and think. Lawyers don't think they're funny, and nobody else thinks they're jokes. The next time you need legal aid or advice, do you call a lawyer or a comedian?

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Ellis Smith April 27, 2010 | 6:12 a.m.

Well, Karl, you picked a zinger this time! Anyone weighing in on this subject should reveal their prior experience with the legal profession.

Mine consists of fifteen years(!) of industrial tort litigation, in both federal and state court jurisdictions: asbestos, crystalline silica, coal tar pitch, benzine. I've seen once substantial businesses with significant payrolls sued into bankruptcy.

So I hate attorneys, right? No I don't hate attorneys. I actually have a better opinion of the profession than I had going into that fifteen-year Odyssey.

Also, if there are good and bad physicians, good and bad members of the clergy, good and bad professors, good and bad primary and secondary teachers, and good and bad engineers, there must also be both good and bad attorneys.

I could not be an attorney. First there's some truth to the observation that engineers are more comfortable working with things than people (although that's not true for all engineers). The other reason is that folks in mathematics, science and engineering go to bed nightly secure in the knowledge that fundamentals underpinning their professions won't change overnight. This does not appear to be true for attorneys in countries whose legal systems are based on English law. One important court decision and it can become a new ball game! That, I couldn't live with.

(Report Comment)
Don Milsop April 29, 2010 | 6:32 a.m.

I previously worked as an investigator for a law firm, and also for eight years for various chemical companies. These companies sold benzene, toluene, and every other toxic chemical in the world which is now banned. What I've learned unfortunately is that lawyers are not necessarily trained to get the truth. Instead, they are trained to win on behalf of their clients, and the truth be damned. When I left the law firm after a short seven months, I felt incredibly dirty and vowed I'd never go near another law firm as an employer. I've seen this attitude in both the practices of civil law and criminal law, by all parties.

Attorneys, like any other profession, also flock to where the money is. Hidalgo County, Texas, with a population of approximately 570,000 has 23 attorneys in private for every 24,800 people. Harris County, Texas, with a population of 3.6 million has 12,000 attorneys in private for every
360 people. The problems cause by both the scarcity and abundance of attorneys in both counties creates tremendous problems.

I would like to see a movement in civil matters towards the creation of a grand jury style system where a group of citizens are formed like any other jury, and decide whether a civil case has any merit to go forward. This could vastly reduce the case load and force all parties, plaintiffs, defendents, and attorney's to act in a more reasonable, responsible, and expeditious matter in clearing up these cases. Of course the attorney's fees would be vastly reduced too.

Anybody want to hold their breath and see if that ever happens?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith April 29, 2010 | 7:52 a.m.


Good post. It's called an "advocacy system," so why wouldn't an attorney put the client's needs first? I join you in believing there should be a more efficient and cost-effective way, and the bottom line should be that where a plaintiff is deserving of an award, more of that reward would go to the plaintiff or plaintiff's heirs.

You mention Texas. There's a famous - INFAMOUS - lawsuit involving employees at bankrupt and defunct Lone Star Steel against a multitude of named defendants. The action was filed in state court and all plaintiffs were represented by one law firm (defendants were represented by many different law firms).

The recovery theory advanced by plaintiffs' attorneys was beyond belief. The atmosphere in the steel mill, which they characterized as "chemical smog" or "chemical soup," was making workers sick, but they had no medical evidence tying sicknesses to any single product or products being used in the steel mill.

Had the suit been filed in federal court it would have been summarily dismissed. As it was the state court judge, who was related to the several plaintiffs by blood or marriage, refused to recuse himself. The matter went to the Texas Supreme Court, who refused to remove the judge from the case!

There has never been a trial, and there won't be one. Millions of dollars have changed hands. Faced with large expenses (for defense attorneys) defendants' insurance companies have settled with plaintiffs' attorney.

It's legalized extortion! An excellent article appeared in "Texas Monthly" magazine (June 1996) under the heading "The Lawsuit From Hell."

Skip to the bottom line. It was left to the discretion of plaintiffs' law firm to distribute settlement monies (after extracting their fees). Investigation showed that some individual plaintiffs with no evidence of any disease received larger settlements than some plaintiffs who were sick or had died.

As I said in an above post, I don't hate attorneys, and I've profited from involvement in the present system, but the system itself sucks!

(Report Comment)

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