Be the Exception, Not the Rule
Flash back to law school. You’re assigned a hefty chunk of reading and several cases to brief. A general rule emerges from these cases and you are feeling confident for your next class. But when you delve deeper into the case law, you realize that an understanding of the rule alone is sometimes only a scratch on the surface. And there it is – the exception. We are drilled over and over again, especially while studying for the bar exam, that knowing the rule is not enough; you must know its exceptions too. The same principle applies to people and professionals, as well.
I think that it’s fair to say that when slinging around stereotypes, the general rule is that lawyers are greedy or dishonest. Have you ever heard a lawyer joke that wasn’t at the expense of the lawyer or law profession? And think about how lawyers are portrayed in popular culture. Yeah, admittedly, you’ve got Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mocking Bird, Perry Mason, and Lt. Danny Kaffee of A Few Good Men, who are noble examples of the profession. There’s not much disagreement that these lawyers were honest, just and admirable. But despite these notable examples, you more often see dubious and dishonest lawyers like Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad, Tom Hagen of The Godfather, and Harvey Dent of The Dark Knight, who turns into an actual villain at the end of the movie. While I certainly don’t agree with the stereotype that lawyers must be inherently bad, it exists nonetheless.
A 2011 article from Solo Practice University hit the nail on the head about the “bad lawyer” stereotypes. These stereotypes range from the “rich” lawyer, only out to line the pockets of their fancy suits, the ambulance chaser, and the ghost, who is never to be seen again once the retainer is received.
A Pew Research Center survey on professional public esteem found that lawyers were perceived to contribute less to society’s well-being than the military, teachers, medical doctors, scientists, engineers, clergy, artists, journalists and business executives. In 2013, only 18% of those surveyed believed that attorneys contributed “a lot” to society. See Abovethelaw.com
How do we, as a profession, change this image and become exceptions to the negative conceptions held about lawyers? Well, I believe that availability of information online is already helping. Creating a professional, yet personable image online can show potential clients and the public that you and the other members of your firm are real people, not just a faceless, soulless company.
Providing honest communication about billing and fees is another way to eliminate negative misconceptions about the lawyer image. The cost of hiring an attorney has long been a complaint of the public. And with stories popping up all over the internet about overbilling, it may be a valid one. See Article - Attorney Suspended for Overbilling and Article - Client sues Law Firm for overbilling. The hourly billing practice is one that has been hotly debated, and has been deemed not well suited for incentivizing attorneys to work smarter. Nonetheless, it is the standard in most instances. Recognize that attorneys are ethically barred from charging fees that are unreasonable or excessive. Sure, we have a job to do which requires that we keep the lights on in the office and put food on the table. But the long-term ramifications of prioritizing billing over the legal needs of the client is not one that we, as a profession, can bear without perpetuating the greedy lawyer stereotypes.
Reversing the negative image of lawyers as a shark or a bulldog is yet another challenge that must be addressed. Obviously, you are tasked with protecting your clients’ interests, which you must do zealously. But doing so does not have to be at the expense of your reputation or your clients’ well-being.
I once saw a dispute between family members of a closely held corporation. So much mud was slung between opposing sides that it was impossible to envision those folks ever running a business together again, not to mention sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner. Learning to recognize situations where compromise or other unique solutions may result in a better outcome for everyone is a beneficial skill, and one that is sure to improve the image of the rabid attorney.
Being the exception to the rule isn’t any easy task. It requires that we provide tailored approaches to each client’s case, not just jamming clients into a one-size-fits-all box. It requires that we listen, communicate, and provide competent representation. It requires that we zealously represent our clients, all the while remaining within the bounds of courtroom decorum and professionalism. While we may know of many aspects of our society changed for the better because of lawyers – social justice, strides towards equality and individual protections -- being the exception is necessary if we want the public as a whole to see our profession as useful, valuable and good.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success.