How to Promote a Positive View of Lawyers and the Legal Profession

Adam a white man with light brown hair, wears a white shirt, red tie with light polka dots, and a white shirt. He is smiling. By Adam G. Linett

Why are lawyers often mocked and despised in the media, and what can we do about it? As professionals, we have spent years studying the law, and we have dedicated our lives and careers to this profession. So while we may take ourselves seriously, sometimes, it is a shock to walk into a courtroom or to face a group of people from the public who view us no differently from the proverbial “snake oil salesman” or as someone out only for ourselves and prepared to pull a fast one.

Admittedly, some members of our profession have broken the law, stretched the rules of ethics, or generally made themselves a nuisance. But we cannot allow these individual examples to define, or to continue to define, us or our profession. Is there anything we can do to raise the public perception of lawyers, defend our profession, and represent our clients effectively at the same time? Let’s consider three goals we can set this year to push back on these common negative impressions.

First, honor your word. Perhaps the most negative perception about lawyers is that we are pathological liars or can artfully twist words and only look out for ourselves. Take, for example, the recent trial of Alex Murdaugh, a South Carolina attorney who also came from a long line of respected attorneys. At his trial for the murder of his wife and son, he admitted that he lied about his actions and stole money from his clients. Or another high-profile example is Michael Avenatti, who was also found guilty of lying and stealing from his clients. People from all backgrounds hate being lied to and hate being manipulated. And it does not take years of education to see whether a person is genuine and trustworthy. This advice is especially true for young attorneys because a good reputation can be very easy to lose. When you deal with the same people daily – say, in a criminal defense practice – your reputation with the same group of prosecutors (and other defense attorneys) is paramount. If you become known as someone untrustworthy, it will undermine your ability to get good results for your clients. (Perhaps this would also be an excellent place to put in a reminder on being clear on our attorney’s fees and costs. A modern-day bane of many businesses is the hidden fees that seem to be tacked onto many transactions.)

Second, be on time. Yes, we are all busy. However, clients want to feel that they are important. This is why they came to us with their problems in the first place. When we are chronically late in responding to them or fail to respond at all, this raises an ethical concern and shows the client what we think about them and their problems. This principle also translates to the legal profession. We have many responsibilities, but we can avoid being chronically late with proper organization and delegation. Again, our failure to respond timely or appropriately to another lawyer or the court may say a lot about what we think about them. On the other hand, a professional and timely response costs us very little.

Finally, promote resolutions, not conflicts, for your clients. It is easy to get tied emotionally to a client’s position. However, our clients hire us to provide objective legal advice and obtain a resolution. Our purpose should focus on our clients’ needs and cases, not self-promotion. If you are good at what you do, it takes little time for clients and other attorneys to notice. In litigation, some cases may be resolved only at a trial. However, given the high percentage of cases that settle pre-litigation and at a court-ordered mediation, there is a small number of cases that a judge or jury must resolve. This is especially true if we do our part to prepare the case. Even if there is no negotiated resolution, our clients and others observe our conduct. To the extent that we want to be treated and perceived as professionals, we need to act like professionals. This is even more true in a charged litigation setting, perhaps dealing with a family or estate matter. For those tempted to promote themselves or their public persona, ask yourselves whether this is a service or a disservice to your and future clients.

As lawyers, we can affect the public’s perception of our profession. We may not all be Atticus Finch, but we can inspire others and honor our profession by keeping our word, being punctual, and promoting resolutions. By individually doing our best to set a good example, we can collectively rescue our profession from the negative perceptions that surround it.