Last winter I spent a good portion of my break filling out a 20-some page registration packet for the Illinois State Bar Examiners attesting to my character and fitness to sit for the Bar. The only question that wasn’t on that application was whether I ordered chocolate or white milk at lunch in elementary school.
I thought this was somewhat ironic as a 2004 Gallup Poll ranked lawyers at the very bottom of professions with high ethical and honesty standards, with only 18 percent of the public giving lawyers a very high or high rating. Only car salesman and advertising practitioners ranked worse. Congressman, business executives, and newspaper reporters (so much for this article) didn’t do much better, only scoring a few percentage points more. But how could a profession that requires such extensive courses and inquiries into ethics and honesty score so low with the general public?
Some may say it’s the money that corrupts the profession, but doctors, who also receive a substantial salary for their services, score significantly higher with the general public, with a 67 percent rating. Even Judges who were all lawyers once have a much higher 53 percent rating. Nevertheless, many people find the words lawyer and liar synonymous, adding to the long-lived stereotype, that lawyers will do and say anything to win their case.
However, lying isn’t an option as anyone who has filled out a bar exam application knows. The majority of the questions in the application are more for the purpose of ascertaining honesty rather than for the substance of the answers themselves. Every year, law students around the country are summoned by the bar examiners of their respective states and prevented from the taking the Bar Exam because they either lied or did not disclose certain information on their application.
This high degree of disclosure and honesty is upheld throughout a lawyer’s career and lawyers are sanctioned on a regular basis for breaking strict ethical standards.
Every ABA approved school is also required to include a Legal Ethics class in their curriculum before a law student is able to graduate. With all of these pre-emptive provisions set into place to avoid dishonesty within the profession, common sense would dictate that law should appear at the top of the poll instead of at the very bottom.
The real problem is that unless the lawyer is “your lawyer,” he and his client is as adversarial as it can possibly get in a civil setting. Furthermore, the system of law in the United States guarantees everyone the right to representation.
In effect, good or bad, everyone is entitled to a lawyer fighting for their rights, which does not flow well with people on the other side of the issue. This is especially true when companies like Enron and WorldCom who are accused of unethical practices and fraud have an army of lawyers trying to prevent the wronged shareholders from their entitlement. It doesn’t help matters when many of the executives and officers of these companies are lawyers themselves.
Such issues are also magnified when individual plaintiff’s try to recover damages from large corporations and insurance companies, rarely being able to afford high legal fees, forced to go pro se against massive legal teams. Of course, the system of justice is supposed to prevent any unfair application of the law even to those representing themselves with limited legal knowledge. Nevertheless, in almost all instances, legal representation gives the party a higher chance of victory.
This brings us to the good side of law as a profession. The reality is that there are plenty of good lawyers; the majority are ethical and honest. Many even volunteer their efforts to help those who aren’t able to afford representation, working tirelessly for little or no pay to provide for justice to those who are most in need.
Analysts have commented that the low score shown in the Gallup poll reflects a stereotype. In reality, they say, “bad lawyers” are sanctioned and disciplined, tarnishing their reputation for the rest of their careers. However, this kind of stereotype translates into a very real backlash that can only be changed on a case-by-case basis.
It may be a harsh reality but the opposite side will rarely acknowledge the ethics and honesty of opposing counsel. In effect, the best thing an attorney can do is abide by an ethical standard that enables them to know that regardless of majority public opinion, they are honest to themselves and the profession they chose to represent.
2004 Gallup Poll
Ethical and Honesty Standards
Ethics Very high/ High
Grade school teachers 73
Druggists, pharmacists 72
Military officers 72
Medical doctors 67
Day care providers 49
Auto mechanics 26
Local officeholders 26
Nursing home operators 24
State officeholders 24
TV reporters 23
Newspaper reporters 21
Business executives 20
Advertising practitioners 10
Car salesmen 9