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.