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by Christian Stiegemeyer, Director of Risk ManagementThe 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:
And the lawyer should reasonably expect the client:
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.
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.
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