While the Public Perception of Lawyers is Nothing New, There are Steps You Can Take to Change It

by Christian Stiegemeyer, Director of Risk Management
The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company

For evidence of lawyers' negative public perception, one need look no further than the oft quoted line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."1 To be fair, one commentator has suggested that since the character speaking the line, Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher, was conspiring to overthrow the government, he feared he could not be successful unless lawyers were eliminated because lawyers would use the law to protect his enemies.2 That is, from Shakespeare's use of this character in uttering that line it can be inferred that the Bard saw lawyers as defenders of liberty against tyranny.

Of course, as with anything involving lawyers, there is always a contrary view, supported by analysis of Shakespeare's personal experience with lawyers and the legal profession.3 Shakespeare was quite litigious, as was his father, who was involved in a case that lasted over twenty years and adversely affected Shakespeare's inheritance. The case would have been ongoing during the writing of Henry VI and it is possible that Shakespeare, disillusioned by the litigation, meant exactly what he said.

Regardless of whether Shakespeare meant to praise or criticize, the fact remains the line is used today to illustrate the public's low opinion of lawyers. And, public perception of lawyers is linked to malpractice allegations against them.4 Suing one's lawyer is, in fact, not a recent phenomenon. In 1435, the Yearbooks for the reign of Henry VI report a decision holding a sergeant-at-law (the precursor to the English barrister) liable for misfeasance.5

What can you do so as not to become that "average" lawyer who is sued three times during his or her career?6 The foundation for malpractice avoidance is good client relations, which begins with the lawyer and client having a proper understanding of what is expected by each from the other in the relationship.

For example, it would ordinarily seem reasonable that a client should expect that the lawyer:

  • WILL treat the client with respect and courtesy.
  • WILL handle the client's legal matter competently and diligently.
  • WILL exercise independent professional judgment on the client's behalf.
  • WILL charge a reasonable fee and explain in advance how that fee will be computed.
  • WILL respond promptly to telephone calls and written communications.
  • WILL keep the client informed and provide the client copies of important papers.
  • WILL preserve client confidences learned during the lawyer-client relationship.
  • WILL exhibit the highest degree of ethical conduct and deal honestly and truthfully with the client, adversary, other lawyers and judges.
  • WILL be guided by a fundamental sense of fair play for the process and the participants and will not abuse the system or the profession.
  • WILL respect the client's decisions on the objectives to be pursued in the case, as permitted by law and the rules of professional conduct, including whether to settle the case.

And the lawyer should reasonably expect the client:

  • TO treat the lawyer with courtesy and respect.
  • TO tell the truth and promptly notify the lawyer of any change of circumstance.
  • TO understand that the lawyer has other clients who are equally deserving of the lawyer's time and efforts.
  • TO tell the lawyer immediately if the client is unhappy regarding the representation and the reasons why.
  • TO refrain from asking the lawyer to engage in illegal, unethical or unprofessional activities.
  • TO be prompt in communications, for appointments or legal proceedings.
  • TO pay the lawyer promptly and as agreed.
  • TO question promptly billing entries which appear incorrect or which are not understood.
  • TO discuss the matter with the lawyer immediately if the client cannot pay as agreed.7

It is unlikely that the general negative public perception of the legal profession will ever change. Yet, clearly setting out and fulfilling reasonable expectations in your client relationships can change the specific perceptions clients have of you.

Endnotes

1 William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part II, act 4, scene 2, line 86.
2 J.B. Hopkins, The First Thing We Do, Let's Get Shakespeare Right!, 72 Fla. B.J. 9 (1998).
3 Gerald T. Bennett, LET'S KILL ALL THE LAWYERS! Shakespeare [Might Have] Meant It, 72 Fla. B.J. 58 (1998).
4 Brent W. Baldwin, When Bad Things Happen to Good Lawyers, St. Louis Bar Journal (Spring 2000).
5 Jeffery M. Smith, Ronald E. Mallen, Preventing Legal Malpractice, West Publishing Co. 1989.
6 Id.
7 Adapted from The Missouri Bar's Client Resource Guide.