Most people profess to dislike lawyers, but I suspect it is the circumstances in which they meet them, not the lawyers, that fuel their distaste. Lawyers are the lubricant keeping the complex machinery of society from breakdown. Imagine if we let individuals resolve their disputes with firearms like countries do when they can’t get along. This is important work that I have been honored to do for over 35 years.
But lawyers, and the practice of law, are being commoditized, just like the rest of commerce. The services of the once “priestly profession” of lawyer, the sage advisor to whom you disclosed your hopes and secrets, your marital woes, and your kid’s drug problem, are regularly bought and sold in the marketplace like fish or fittings. Anyone who has driven in Detroit where I live will attest that there are probably more lawyer billboards lining Detroit freeways than any other subject matter. Billboards featuring boxing gloves and tough words like “aggressive” and “we fight for you” compete for eye space with $499 bankruptcy specials. One local billboard lawyer seems to me to be twisting her pearls with a “come hither” look, but I’m male, so maybe I’m seeing it wrong. Her tagline is “know your rights.” The TV advertising is even worse. A lawyer here has theme music with a soaring voice urging you to “go for the win,” like a human problem is some sort of sporting event. Another firm is rumored to spend $10,000,000 or more annually on advertising and marketing, reeling in clients with its “no fee guarantee” that is no different from what personal injury lawyers have been doing for years. Some of these lawyers don’t even handle many of the cases they lasso. They send them out to other lawyers under a deal where they get a percentage of the attorney fee just for making the referral. That’s OK; it doesn’t cost the client, but it is all about getting the client, and I bet it is the same where you live. The phenomenon is not just limited to injury lawyers either. While more discrete, the corporate crowd is equally hustling. At a recent auto supplier seminar I attended, there were more lawyers (me included) than suppliers, and all of them seemed to be handing out logoed trinkets like politicians. How did the profession of Lincoln and Darrow get to this?
I’m not sure, but I have some theories.
Certainly high on the list is the elevation of the individual over society at large. Just look at the countless laws enacted over the last 50 years that create a right to sue. Regulations have exploded from a few book shelves in my law school library of 35 years ago to whole library floors (now actually a bunch of computer memory). Everybody has “rights,” and anyone wronged is a “victim.” Much of these laws are noble, but our method of suing to address their breach is less than satisfactory, not to mention inefficient. We used to talk out our problems. Now we sue.
No doubt the proliferation of lawyers has played a role, too. Someone has to enforce those rights. For decades, law schools churned out thousands of lawyers, many more than the system could absorb. Before the 1970s, most states and bar associations prohibited hawking legal services. You called someone you trusted for a recommendation. There was a connection. You met at the office and told your story to a sympathetic ear who took up your burden and asked for your trust. Today, with so many lawyers and so many advertising venues, you don’t need to look around. The billboard lawyer has you thinking you’re a victim, and this horrible event in your life is the lottery ticket you deserve.
I also think much lawyer work today requires technical, not interpersonal, skills. Lawsuits have become a regulatory arm of the government. There are lawyers who do nothing but file lawsuits over junk faxes under the Telecommunications Act. No one needs to meet face to face for such cases. Although not gone yet, getting the sense of the case and the human condition is less important than moving the paper. Fewer and fewer lawyers are ever going in a court room or a board room where the uncertainly of the human condition plays out and where advice is valued. Over 98% of civil cases are resolved without trial. This has led to a generation of lawyers strong on tasks that only peripherally involve humans. I am not prepared to say this is all bad, but it is clear that something has been lost. I am glad that I still get to practice law each day, one client at a time. It probably won’t last.
Question: What is the best thing a lawyer has ever done for you?
Russell F. Ethridge Esq. has practiced law for 35 years and has been Graff-Pinkert’s and Today’s Machining World’s lawyer for 25 years. He practices in St. Clair Shores Michigan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.russellethridgelaw.com