|Lawyer jokes are big these days. So are lawyers. That's probably because
we seem to have more lawyers in the public eye than ever before.
From the O.J. Simpson
trial to Monica Lewinsky, lawyers are in the news, perhaps more than they've been since
President Richard Nixon, himself a lawyer, ran into troubles with the law.
Lawyers, aside from those who are politicians, come in all sizes and shapes, a variety
of specialties from criminal to family problems.
Few chase ambulances. Some make money by suing doctors for malpractice. Others engage
in class action suits. A few work for environmental protection. Still others spend most of
their time preparing people's estates before they die. There are corporate lawyers, who
seldom go to court; there are public defenders; indeed, lawyers address almost every
aspect of our lives.
Sometimes lawyers are in the news. Since they often speak for their clients out of
court, they are the ones who appear on television. Viewers tend to think they are their
clients sometimes, but they're not. Some seem to dwarf their clients.
Being a lawyer is a
peculiar thing. Lawyers don't have much in the way of assets except their ability to speak
on their feet or their skill in remembering the rules of the legal system. Unlike
physicians most of the time - capital cases are an exception - lawyers don't deal in
matters of life and death. But they are vital when we have to deal with the law, whether
it be criminal or civil.
Indeed, that's what we need them for, to remember the rules of the law, which after all
is the way we manage to live together, and to use these rules in helping us deal with the
None of this makes lawyers loved much.
Most non-lawyers think lawyers are unprincipled, not to say unethical. This part of
society tends to believe that lawyers have no ethical standards, when in fact, ethics are
an important part of being a lawyer. It's not that lawyers are unethical. If they are,
they don't last very long. But they have to be clever, they have to think on their feet,
they have to retain minute details of the intricate fabric that makes up the American
legal system - a system that, because it is both federal and state, is unlike those that
govern most nations of the world.
Lawyers are necessary. We tend to disparage them until we need them and then we're very
happy they're around. And I have to think that most lawyers are not really worthy of being
the butt of jokes, even if they've become resigned to hearing them. I have to say that
because some of my best friends are lawyers. After talking to them, I've come to realize
that lawyers are unloved not because they are unprincipled, but because their basic
function is to act as advocates.
The lawyer's responsibility is to uphold the law, but an equal burden is to do the best
he or she can to defend a client or to get him or her the best possible result of any
legal action. This doesn't mean one's counsel breaks the law, they just try to use it to
their client's best advantage.
But there's a cruel paradox here. The better the lawyer becomes as an advocate, the
more the public is likely to think advocacy means the lawyer believes as his client does
(or doesn't). Not so; the true lawyer manages to separate himself or herself from the
client, to advocate his or her client's cause and to retain a separate set of principles
by which to live.
This is no mean feat, just as it is not easy for a journalist to remain neutral while
reporting the grosser, meaner or more outrageous aspects of human life. But in an
adversarial system of law, the lawyer is an integral part of the delicate drama by which
justice is rendered.
I'd be the first to say it's not perfect, but I'd also be the first to add that no one
has yet found a better way of living with the rule of law. The alternatives are
lawlessness or the crushing hand of the dictator who rules by decree. In such societies
where there is no law, life is neither abundant or free.
So make jokes about lawyers if you want. Then thank them the next time one of them
arrives to straighten out the legal kinks in your life. Thanks is something they get very
little of these days.
Carl Heintze writes for Metro Weeklies in
Santa Clara County.