Why people hate lawyers: an overview

By J. DeVoy

Admittedly, the number of actual and prospective lawyers I deal with day-to-day is small: Satyriconistas, my friends at school and friends at other schools make up the bulk of those interactions.  When I venture out into the world, I realize that there’s this huge and unbearable class of lawyers and law students that give the rest of us a bad name.

Lawyers are neurotic, pedantic, disagreeable and egotistic people.  I admit that I am.  To some extent, lawyers are paid to be that way.  But, as with all groups of people, some are cool while most aren’t.  And, unfortunately, the uncool ones who think their conduct is entirely acceptable because of cordial silence from peers ruin it for the rest of us.  Yet, some of it is inevitable.

I. Lawyers are Obsessive About Status and Rankings.

This is the inevitable consequence of every aspect of a lawyer’s life, from undergraduate institution to law school and soon, firm, being ranked by US News & World Report.  There is the constant battle to go to a better school or a better firm and, concomitantly, command greater respect and admiration from peers.

The downside is that this fuels the obsessive part of the lawyer’s reptilian hindbrain, which is normally fixated on issues of comma placement and whether to use a term connotatively or denotatively.  Lawyers rank – not just rate, but rank – cars, beers, clothing and cities.  The extent to which this is done is relative to a lawyer or law student’s context; the truly clueless may debate Waukesha versus Wausau for BIGFAMILYLAW prospects, or the merits of Macy’s off-the-rack suits against JC Penney’s.  Moving up the scale, there’s debate between Brooks Brothers Outlet and Jos. A Banks, and whether Yeungling or Stella Artois is the more prestigious beer (to completely omit hyper-local microbrew snobbery).  At the top are furious clashes of titans over Brioni v. Kiton v. Rubinacci bespoke garments, which shipping company will most prestigiously hand-build your future yacht, and whether to purchase a flat in Paris, Hong Kong or Bonn.

Most of this is idiotic and ignores the wide berth of individual opinion on these subjects.  Rather than allowing for generalizations to be made, such as that cost affects quality in some areas (liquor, cars, clothing) and not others, an absolute truth – the blinding light of prestige in Plato’s cave – must be reached.  The identifying traits in all these interactions, however, are all the same: Everyone’s a douchebag, and everything’s trivial.

Then there’s the anti-status lawyer who, ironically, betrays his or her status obsession by belaboring how anti-status he or she is.  While arguably better than buying into the status game played by everyone else, it is still a form of status-whoring, using an anti-status and anti-establishment ethic as currency.

II. Asymmetries of Information Engender Resentment and Hatred.

Sun Tzu taught us that wars are won through deception and asymmetries of information.  Naturally, this engenders hatred in one’s opponent — deep, seething, soul-twisting hatred.

This problem is pervasive throughout society and rooted in ignorance.  Though it would be nice if it could be a problem neatly compartmentalized within the lumpenproletariat’s morlockian sub-earth, businesspeople and doctors all hate lawyers too.  In reality, none of these people know what lawyers *do,* but see the consequences of their actions in legal bills, increased insurance premiums, more guns, fewer guns, a need for tort reform, its inherent evil, or whatever jingoistic issue affects them.

Lawyers might as well speak and act in code, despite much of their work being a matter of public record.  To many of us, especially those that don’t come from families of lawyers, it becomes evident during the Christmas of 1L year that you’re no longer like your family, and something profound has happened to your thinking that separates you from “them.”  Naturally, they blame this on you.  In reality, though, they are the ignoramuses; one need only read the comments section in any Huffington Post or Free Republic discussion to see how many outwardly successful and even educated people are driven by subjective notions of what’s “right” and “just,” as opposed to the boundaries of existing law and constitutional feasibility. The McDonald’s coffee case is a superb example of this phenomenon.  Attorneys and those who bothered to read it saw a pattern of bad conduct by a fabulously wealthy company that ignored repeated warnings about its coffee’s temperature until an elderly woman suffered humiliating third-degree burns, and then tried to head off litigation.  In contrast, rubes see a clumsy old woman who tried to shake down a ‘Murcan Insteetushun.

What ignites this tinderbox and pours a barrel of gasoline over it is the chumminess of the bar that, to outsiders, looks incestuous.  To attorneys who have practiced as public defenders, prosecutors or as clerks in chambers, the acquaintances between counsel and the judges seem to be a given, especially among long-time practitioners.  To the indigent criminal defendant, who has only the faintest grasp of what is happening in the first place, the familiarity between an Assistant Federal Public Defender and Assistant United States Attorney who have known one another for decades appears to be nothing short of collusion.  The same is true in civil litigation, family court matters, tax, immigration or securities matters opposite the IRS, ICE or SEC, respectively, and even business transactions advised by lawyers.  Where members of the bar see collegiality, the unsophisticated and imperiled client sees a rigged game that he or she cannot possibly win.

III. Dispassionate Analysis is Interpreted as Indifference, or Worse.

In the mind of the average person, which bears more resemblance to YouTube comments than anything rational, anything less than praise is an affront.  Nothing less could be expected from the products of our participation trophy culture.  When you challenge their thinking, however, it makes them think you “hate” them, and that you somehow want to stand in their way.

Law school and legal practice are emotionally deadening.  There’s debate over the desirability of this, but it’s largely true.  For the most part, good legal writing exorcises emotion from language, professional responsibilities require the confidence of life-or-death information, and loaded characterizations of evidence are objectionable.  Lawyers can’t even initiate sexual relationships with existing clients, just to preserve their independent judgment.

To that extent, there is an emotional disconnect between those with legal education and the general public.  But it’s a good thing.  Without getting caught up in a visceral reaction, lawyers are able to look hard at difficult situations and ask hard questions.  Ultimately, they are inquisitive people who want to understand how things work, as they may have to explain their findings to others.

To the average person, equipped with the resilience of onion paper and zombified in the cult of consensus, inquiry is equated to an emotional attack.  To the credentialed-but-stupid, saying no is a venial sin, while asking why is a cardinal transgression.  To these people, asking why not only seditious, but connotes an insult: You think they are too stupid to reach a valid conclusion on their own.  They may be.  Generally, lawyers don’t ask “why” for such a biased purpose, and seek to gather information in earnest.

IV. If You Insist on Not Blaming The Victim…

It’s easy for lawyers and law students to understand their brethren’s contempt for those who hate us.  A few people really understand the value that good representation can add at every step of their lives, business operations or other ventures.  Some lawyers fall short of this “good representation” standard as well.  Without looking outward for justification, though, everyone should remember that non-lawyers are creatures of their own habits, whether business owners, doctors, or cosmetologists.  They all see the world differently, but operate at an inherent disadvantage relating to legal issues.

Rather than widening the gulf between client and counsel, bridging it seems more effective.  One of Wisconsin’s top trial lawyers wears off-the-rack suits from big box stores to trial, and he drives a battered station wagon to the courthouse.  In the same way, opposing counsel may be better served to make their plans for a tee time via e-mail, rather than in front of bewildered clients.  And, maybe, we can stop ranking everything.

35 Responses to Why people hate lawyers: an overview

  1. shg says:

    The view of lawyers from a law student’s seat is different than the view from behind the big desk. The left coast lawyers look different than the right. The solos dress differently than Biglaw. Criminal lawyers wear more comfortable shoes than transactional lawyers.

    Ranking is often more of a concern to those who have yet to reach the place where they are comfortable with themselves. The majority of lawyers get past this, but feel no compulsion to make themselves the poster boy of lawyer success. It’s more of an issue with law students, young lawyers and lawyers in big firms who suffer from self-esteem issues.

  2. Alan says:

    I don’t think an analysis of this topic can be complete without acknowledging and analyzing the popular perception that lawyers in general will stretch the truth, cover up, conspire, lie, cheat and steal whenever they think they might be able to get away with it.

    • Sean F. says:

      That doesn’t just describe lawyers, but people in general. Lawyers just get paid for it.

      • Alan says:

        > That doesn’t just describe lawyers, but people in general.

        In my experience, that depends on where you live or the circles you run in. But it sounds like what you are saying is “everyone else is doing it, so what?”. If you are an attorney or in law school, you may be well on the way to joining your brethren.

        BTW, see HUG vs. GARGANO & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Mass. App. Ct. docket # 09-P-55, just released today at http://www.massreports.com/ and pay particular attention to footnote 14. The popular perception is that every lawyer does this. After six cases, the Mass Appeals Court is now “troubled”, but apparently has done nothing more about it than mention their concern in the footnote of an opinion? The minimal efforts that the courts and bar associations put forth in enforcing the Rules of Professional Conduct is another part of the reason attorneys have such a bad reputation.

        • The minimal efforts that the courts and bar associations put forth in enforcing the Rules of Professional Conduct is another part of the reason attorneys have such a bad reputation.

          AMEN. I am horrified at the bullshit that spineless judges let lawyers get away with.

  3. sdaedalus says:

    This is a very good defence of lawyers. Of course, I am a lawyer myself, or I might not be saying this. I realise objectivity is impossible here.

    A couple of points.

    there’s this huge and unbearable class of lawyers and law students that give the rest of us a bad name

    Absolutely

    Lawyers are neurotic, pedantic, disagreeable and egotistic people

    Yes, subject to the qualification that most people who read and write a lot, maybe most people generally, are a bit this way inclined. Not just lawyers. Writers (non-legal) can be even worse for example.

    Not one of these people know what lawyers *do,* but see the consequences of their actions in legal bills…Lawyers might as well speak and act in code, despite much of their work being a matter of public record

    Absolutely. There is way too much mystique surrounding the law, it is not and should not be an arcane science, law should be for the people & comprehensible to them. The complications created by lawyers are inherently anti-democratic. We need to return to simplicity. Although I like the arcane, this is why I became a lawyer, not at the price of stealing from ordinary members of society something which should be theirs and billing them on a high hourly basis for doing so.

    Law school and legal practice are emotionally deadening.

    Yes, this is very true.

    good legal writing exorcises emotion from language, professional responsibilities require the confidence of life-or-death information, and loaded characterizations of evidence are objectionable

    Sometimes it is necessary to separate emotion from logic, but legal writing can take this to extremes. Also, it murders language.

    Lawyers can’t even initiate sexual relationships with existing clients, just to preserve their independent judgment

    Perhaps I have just been meeting the wrong clients, but this has not necessarily been the greatest disadvantage of being a lawyer. Plus, doctors are subject to even greater constraints in this regard.
    Also, if really overcome by passion one could always send the client to another lawyer, and forfeit the fee. It would be interesting to see a lawyer struggle with this dilemma.

    there is an emotional disconnect between those with legal education and the general public. But it’s a good thing

    This is where I disagree with you. See my comments on law being by the people for the people and ideally comprehensible by the people as set out above. Lawyers serve society, not just themselves. Just like, for instance, writers do.

    non-lawyers are creatures of their own habits, whether business owners, doctors, or cosmetologists. They all see the world differently, but operate at an inherent disadvantage relating to legal issues

    Everyone is a creature of their own habit, sees the world differently, and operates at an inherent disadvantage vis a vis others who have different habits. I agree that this universal human problem is exacerbated re. lawyers because of the arcaneness/Skull & Bones element, you know my views on this above.

    Rather than widening the gulf between client and counsel, bridging it seems more effective

    Yes, subject to the qualification that some clients like their lawyers to live up to the legal image and can be very disappointed and feel they are not getting top dollar if their lawyer is just like them. However on balance it is better for lawyers to be more human.

    In the same way, opposing counsel may be better served to make their plans for a tee time via e-mail, rather than in front of bewildered clients

    Quite right. Very bad form to do this.

  4. sdaedalus says:

    And really, one can’t devote one’s whole life to one’s legal ranking. This would be a shocking waste of so much that is good in life.

  5. TDR says:

    Wow, shg. Well said.

  6. DMG says:

    I like to tell people that some of the dumbest people I ever met, I met in law school. They tended to be good at gaining status though.

  7. JR says:

    I have a few local law firms as clients (I’m a designer). What is up with using Esquire? I have a couple of clients with business cards like this…

    Laura B. Lawyer, Esq.

    What percentage of lawyers use that? It strikes me as ridiculous and affected.

    • J DeVoy says:

      Titles are supposed to be given, not taken. If someone listed an attorney in a brochure as “Esq.,” that would be fine. Calling yourself an esquire is a faux pas. I always taught that business cards should say “attorney” or “attorney at law,” though the latter seems to be more in the realm of solo practitioners. If the firm is big enough, it should just say associate or partner.

    • JPD says:

      That is what licensed attorneys are generally referred as.

  8. TDR says:

    I used to think it was a territorial thing. Attorneys in general practice in my home state would generally use “Hon. John Smith.” However, in the entertainment practice, literally every single attorney I work with around the country uses Esq. in various contexts (e.g., email signatures). Why is that any more ridiculous than a physician being “Dr. John Smith” or engineers identifying their certifications/degrees in their signature?

  9. sdaedalus says:

    I agree with JR that the whole esquire thing is pretentious. It looks particularly bad when, as in his example, a woman is using it. The term “esquire” is for males only, look at its origins.

  10. [...] another post on the blog: J. DeVoy muses as to why lawyers are hated. I think that he gets it right here: Lawyers might as well speak and act in code, despite much of [...]

  11. David says:

    I think that you have the right frame of mind. There are a lot of lawyers that are like their nicknames “Liars”. It is hard to trust them at times and you can’t always trust that they are on your side. It is a hard job that is for sure.

  12. [...] The Legal Satyricon’s J. Devoy has a post up explaining why people hate lawyers. [...]

  13. slumlord says:

    Lawyers serve society, not just themselves.

    If they served societies they would be devoted to the truth and not to their client.

    It’s their lack of moral compass which engenders the repulsion. Just like used car salesmen and journalists.

    • Fred says:

      The fact is that lawyers DO serve society by being COMPLETELY devoted to their client. It is not the job of one attorney to find truth, but the responsibility of the judge or jury to analyze the arguments of both sides and decide which has provided better EVIDENCE to make a verdict. That is the most effective way to solve disputes in any advanced society. If the system fails on one case, it has succeeded in providing justice in many others. It is not perfect, but it is far closer to perfect than if lawyers did not advocate clients to their FULL ability. This common misconception you display is foolish and ultimately dangerous.

  14. I think it comes down to money. They have you over a barrel and not only is your opponent’s attorney out for your blood, but so is your own.

    This I think sums it up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2psuC58lNE

    No offense.

  15. [...] Some theories on lawyer unpopularity [DeVoy, Legal Satyricon] [...]

  16. Jack Olson says:

    Law professor Alan Dershowitz once commented that any profession which has as low a reputation as the legal profession must have earned it.

  17. [...] what about everyone else. See if any of these factors from Why people hate lawyers: an overview by The Legal Satyricon ring true: 1. Lawyers are Obsessive About Status and Rankings. This is the inevitable consequence [...]

  18. [...] Why people hate lawyers: an overview « The Legal Satyricon [...]

  19. liam train says:

    law is pointless…. mostly the result of people acting improperly. lawyers are lying, obnoxious cunts

  20. kevin says:

    Jaslow Lab and its co-defendants answered, denying all liability. They claimed that Whelan Associates’ copyright was invalid for two reasons. First, they said that although he had not been listed in the copyright registration, Rand Jaslow had been a co-author (with Elaine Whelan) of the Dentalab program. The omission of Rand Jaslow from the registration form, defendants averred, rendered the copyright defective.

  21. RS says:

    And the award for “Most pompous asshole attorney patting his own back” goes to….. J. DeVoy……

  22. Sam says:

    The problem is lawyers are devoted to themselves. The law itself is usually rational and fair, lawyers are not.The worst are those who use emotional arguments or let their emotions guide their work (the worst are female family-law lawyers). In addition the majority of owner lawyers are incompetent – ask any punter who has retained one. Unfortunately Law Societies the world over are there to protect lawyers not their clients. It is onsidered bad form for a lawyer to act to sue lawyer – why are there so many doctor malpractice chasers yet so few lawyer malpractice charsers? Lawyers are the scum of the earth.

  23. [...] • What never goes out of style?  Hating lawyers.  Here’s an overview of why people despise members of our community.  Which is confusing because “lawyers are neurotic, pedantic, disagreeable and egotistic people,” so what’s not to like, really?  Anyway, if you have to nitpick for reasons to spew hate at us on this High Holy Day, here are four bulleted reasons why you could.  I guess.  [The Legal Satyircon] [...]

  24. joseph calabresi says:

    Lawyer arrogance permeates this article.
    The financial devastation and turmoil caused by “my” attorney was not justifiable. Never make the mistake of walking into a law firm and asking for help….you will be taken for a ride, manipulated, lied to, used and spit out. The hatred is well deserved….possibly.

  25. Mick says:

    The legal profession, especially lawyers, for the most part deserve the hatred and contempt that those of us who have had to work with you guys have developed.
    This seems to be one of the only highly paid professions, in which the high pay you get, is not tied to any performance level whatsoever. You get paid, simply because you passed the bar. You get paid win or lose, you get paid if lose every case in your life, just for showing up to represent someone. If the ordinary person doesn’t study the law himself and know it before hiring one of you pricks, we will get taken for a ride.
    Lawyers charge you, just to be in their presence, or simply to ask a question, or simply to get an opinion. Lawyers charge you for just reading your email for God’s sake. How can this not lead to a narcissistic personality disorder? I have worked with three different lawyers, and after paying them a large sum of money, came to find out, they did not know the law, statutes, or guidelines any better than I did, but yet all three of them were condescending as hell. Why should I pay a lawyer who doesn’t know the law? Sad thing is, there are a lot of you out there.

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