California Bar Journal
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For lawyers, a little thanks
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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.

Carl HeintzeBeing 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 law.

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.