Denver Bar Association
September 2003
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It's Time to Talk Back! President has given up 'laughing with' and is now educating

by Joe Dischinger

The ABA Journal E-Report recently asked its readers for the most memorable reaction they received when they announced they wanted to become lawyers. The publication was "deluged" with responses. It provided a sampling of the answers in two installments. www.abanet.org/journal/ereport/jy25 answers.html and www.abanet.org/jour-nal/ereport/au1answers.html.

In almost every case, a dear friend or relative denigrated the career choice. Most fell into the "You’re too honest to become a lawyer" or "Why don’t you do something useful with your life?" category. Some were much harsher, with comparisons to cockroaches, condemned sinners, crooks and prostitutes. One person was written out of a will.

I’ve had many similar experiences. Once, when I was introduced at the senior staff meeting of a major new client, an engineer turned to the general manager and said, "You let a snake in here?" He wasn’t smiling. Often, when I am just meeting someone and he or she learns what I do, the first response is a crack implying that lawyers are venal or dishonest.

I’m not talking about lawyer jokes, although the people who make such comments would say they were joking. A true lawyer joke is only as offensive as a "dumb blonde" joke; some of them are quite funny, and the accuracy of the stereotype is not the point. I’m talking about the completely impulsive, unclever remark, such as "Oh, I’d better keep my hand on my wallet."

My response in such situations has been probably very similar to what most of you do. I laugh and change the subject. For the first 20 years of my practice, I didn’t worry about it much. But lately it has started to wear on me.

The irony, I believe, is that most attorneys are actually less venal and more honest than the majority of people. We have one of the very few occupations where one can lose the privilege to continue practicing if one does something dishonest. It is, in fact, the only profession that I know of where your license may be revoked for doing something dishonest in your personal life.

Whether the stereotype is accurate may be debated; I sometimes have the debate with other attorneys. 

 What is troubling is why people think it is okay to insult me to my face. Didn’t their parents teach them better manners?

The answer may be that most lawyers are socially graceful enough that people feel comfortable making such comments, confident in the knowledge the lawyer will understand it is only a joke. Another possibility is that lawyers are perceived as so powerful that we are both fair game and strong enough to take it. Or maybe the speaker just went through a bad divorce.

I have started to let people know when I think their comments and forwarded e-mails are offensive or factually off-base. For those e-mails that seem like they can’t possibly be true, such as the "Stella Awards," which purport to describe outrageous jury awards, check out www.snopes.com, www.truthorfiction.com or www.urbanlegends.com.

I try to be polite about it, if I can. But I have come to the conclusion that laughing off such comments (or, worse, agreeing with them) not only condones, it affirms the stereotype.

For example, I recently received a forwarded e-mail containing a commentary by Paul Harvey. The commentary was about some role that a politician had played, back when she was a practicing attorney, in obtaining light sentences for some vicious criminals. Mr. Harvey suggested we should keep this in mind, if she should ever run for higher office. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what lawyers do, and why we do it. I responded to the sender with this question: If the prison doctor had treated these vicious criminals while they were sick, would we say the doctor is unfit for public office?

If you are offended by these constant attacks on lawyers, as you should be, it is time to talk back. Stick up for yourself and your profession, just as you would for a client. Know the facts. Be persuasive. Educate. Take opportunities to discuss with our families, friends and the general public the role that lawyers play in a free society.

We may need to explain to some the role of an advocate, and why the advocate should not necessarily be identified with the client’s actions and morals. Most of all, challenge an unfair attack. Courtesy does not require that we ignore statements implying that all lawyers are avaricious, entirely self-interested, amoral and responsible for the demise of civilization.


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