In Defense of Lawyers

Author: Katherine LeChat

Lawyers – why the very word makes some people cringe. And lawyer jokes are in abundance: “Why won’t a snake bite a lawyer?” “Professional courtesy” is the reply.  Or, how about this one: “What’s the difference between a dead dog lying in the road and a dead lawyer lying in the road?”  The answer: “There are skid marks in front of the dog”.

For years lawyers have been held in fairly low esteem by the public – regarded as slightly above child molesters and slightly below used car salesmen. I’m not sure exactly when that happened.

I know it wasn’t always that way.  When I was a child I admired lawyers.  I loved to read about the cases of Abraham Lincoln and the unpopular causes defended by Clarence Darrow.

I loved to watch movies about lawyers.  “To Kill a Mockingbird”, where actor Gregory Peck played a small town Alabama lawyer in the 1930’s who defended a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, was one of my favorites. The movie, which was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, dealt with racial prejudice.  Then there was “Inherit the Wind” about the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee where a teacher was prosecuted for teaching the theory of evolution. The part of defense lawyer Clarence Darrow was played by Spencer Tracy, and the part which was based on famed orator William Jennings Bryan was played by Fredric March.  Another great movie.  How could you watch those two movies and not come away with admiration for lawyers?

So, what happened?  Maybe it was the proliferation of Personal Injury lawyers or the change in the rules allowing lawyers to advertise–especially on television.  Everyone has seen too many of those TV ads where attorneys Will Sue you and Ima Lawsuit tell you how successful they have been in getting thousands for their accident victim clients from those big bad insurance companies who will continue to abuse you until you get smart and hire an attorney.  Those of you who have had the misfortune to be involved in a car accident probably were inundated only days later with letters from lawyers wanting to represent you.  There is still a rule against direct solicitation of clients by attorneys, but if they word the letter just right it becomes an ad and not a violation of the rule.  Who said lawyers aren’t smart? Automobile insurance premiums are at an all-time high because of the increase in personal injury lawsuits.  If you happen to be a doctor, your worst enemy is a medical malpractice attorney.  Some doctors have even decided to give up their medical practices because they couldn’t afford their skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums. And, who can forget the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial with his “dream team” of defense attorneys.  As entertaining as that trial was and as addictive as it was to Court TV junkies, the televising of the trial did nothing to enhance the image of attorneys.

As much as the public may dislike lawyers, can you imagine a world without them?  Now, now, don’t be so quick to say “Yes”. While I personally believe that most of the people who are charged with criminal offenses are rightfully charged, there are always some who are wrongfully charged.  What if you were one of those?  Would you, knowing nothing about criminal law, want to take your chances representing yourself, or would you want the very best attorney you could find representing you?  Unless you are an idiot, you would choose the latter.  Anyone who is familiar with Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld’s Innocence Project can tell you the number of innocent persons who have been freed from prison due to the hard work performed on their behalf by the Project’s lawyers.  The Innocence Project, which was started in 1992 as a non-profit legal clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, has to date freed 114 inmates convicted of mostly rape and murder offenses. Most of these convictions resulted from eyewitness testimony, which we now know to be highly unreliable, or from faulty (and in some cases fraudulent) forensic testing.  El Paso’s own Chris Ochoa was wrongfully convicted in 1988 and served 12 years in prison for rape and murder.  He was eventually freed due to more advanced DNA testing available today and as a result of the real killer, who was serving three life sentences for similar crimes, coming forward and confessing to the crime. Without lawyers working on their behalf, these wrongfully convicted individuals would still be serving time in prison.

There are also plenty of personal injury or medical malpractice lawsuits where the victim was injured or even killed due to negligence on the part of another party.  Let’s say your 7 year old daughter is walking home from school one day and passes by an abandoned house which has been allowed to remain in a state of disrepair by the owner. Let’s say one side of the house collapses and several bricks are flung in the direction of your child, hitting her in the head and killing her.  Would you consider that to be just a tragic accident or would you go after the owner of the house for being negligent?  Or, let’s say your 13-year old son is having surgery, and, through the negligence of a particular doctor, is deprived of oxygen long enough to become brain damaged.  Your son will require special care for the rest of his life.  Are you willing to foot the entire bill for his care, or would you consider suing the doctor and the hospital for negligence?  Granted there are too many frivolous lawsuits filed each year, and there are some attorneys out there who end up with a disproportionate share of settlement or jury awarded monies because they charge their clients way more than they should.  However, most outrageous multi-million dollar jury awards to plaintiffs and victorious attorney fee awards are whittled down to more reasonable amounts during the appellate process.

My point is that there are a lot of good attorneys who aren’t just working for the money.  There are those who do really care about their clients.  Of course we hear more about the bad attorneys because what they do makes news.  I refer to believe that there are more good attorneys in the world than bad.  Maybe I’m being naive, but that’s what I choose to believe.  I recently heard a judge talking about visiting an elementary classroom and seeing the following sign above the blackboard:

“Without the law, there is no justice.  Without justice, there is no freedom”. I would add:  Without lawyers, our quest for justice would be much more difficult.

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