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March 25th, 2014:

Dealing with the Lawyer Stereotype

The legal profession has an image problem. One of the reasons why lawyer jokes are funny is because there is a kernel of truth to them. When you hear about lawyers on the news, it’s related to a newsworthy case or lawyers who did something severely unethical or illegal. These are the lawyers who are painting the picture of the profession.

And here’s what it looks like. I posted a simple question on Facebook and Reddit: “When you hear the word “lawyer” what phrases, stereotypes, gut reactions, or ideas come to mind?” Here are some of the responses I got:

Jerk Center by Sarah_Ackerman

Jerk Center by Sarah_Ackerman from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Gladiators
Addicts
Selfish
Expensive
Rip off
Money grubbers
Dishonest
Smart
Patronizing
Insensitive
Sharks
Narcissists
Power-hungry
Slick
Ambulance chaser
Snakes
I won’t be in a hurry to be friends with them, but I’d rather them be friends than enemies.
They’ll do whatever it takes to lie for their client, even if it means letting a murderer go free, as long as their paid.
Always synonymous with human filth

A lot of these responses came from my Facebook friends – people who like me and know what I do for a living.

Sometimes I forget that there’s a nasty stereotype associated with the legal profession. I’m reminded of it when I do speaking engagements where I get feedback like this:

  • “I have heard several students say that it was the most helpful lecture they have attended. I also heard that they really enjoyed having a lawyer that added life to the room!”
  • “I feared it was going to be boring, but I figured it’d be like eating broccoli: Not fun, but good for you. I was delighted by Ruth’s presentation. She was engaging and funny – like eating broccoli covered in delicious queso.”
Shark Car Ornament by peggydavis66 from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Shark Car Ornament by peggydavis66 from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I know I’m not a typical lawyer in terms of personality and hobbies, but I forget that it is strikingly different than what a lot of people think of when they think of a lawyer. Even though I don’t fit the stereotype, I don’t see myself as that different from my counterparts in regards to work ethic, an enjoyment of the law, and a desire to help people – the things that really matter to potential clients.

So what’s the solution to the awful lawyer stereotype? I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is since we’re a self-regulating profession, we should have an expectation that we all follow Wheaton’s Law (“Don’t be a dick”). We shouldn’t tolerate arrogance, narcissism, or insensitivity in our dealings with our clients or each other. I wish more law schools would reject applicants and law firms would turn down candidates or fire people for being jerks. I don’t know what else we can do to show that the lawyers who make it on the news are the exception and not the rule for what it means to be a lawyer.

I was pleased to see that a few responses to my question that showed not everyone hates lawyers. One said a lawyer is a “[t]rusted advisor, hopefully.” Another said we’re the “[d]efenders of the weak.” At least some people know we’re not all bad.

See also: Lawyers’ Bad Reputations Start with Arrogant Law Students.