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 JKarlUSMC@aol.com.