The Cause and Effect of the Historical Shift in the Role of Attorneys

Posted By Pasadena Family Law Attorney || 7-Jun-2010

Historically, a lawyer's role was peacefully resolving disputes, not creating them. A reversal of that role seems to have occurred as a result of a change in the type of individuals entering law school. According to a June, 1997 article from the American University Law Review entitled, "Lawyer, Knowing Thyself: A Review of Empirical Research on Attorney Attributes Bearing on Professionalism", since around the 1960's, "individuals who chose to enter law school have a low interest in emotions or others' feelings." In 1984, in response to this change, Warren Berger, then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, while speaking about the American legal system to members of the American Bar Association, said, "Our system is too costly, too painful, too destructive, too inefficient for a truly civilized people. To rely on the adversary process as the principal means of resolving conflicting claims is a mistake that must be corrected." Chief Justice Berger also stated that "The obligation of our profession is, or has long been thought to be, to serve as healers of human conflicts." When he made those remarks, Chief Justice Berger was approximately 76 years old and had personally witnessed the change in the legal profession.

According to the American University Law Review article, it is well documented that since approximately the 1960's, those individuals interested in practicing law do so to pursue wealth and power and not for the purpose of addressing social issues and problems or helping others. In fact, studies show that a law student who was "concerned chiefly with people, who values harmonious human contacts, is friendly, tactful, sympathetic, and loyal, who is warmed by approval and bothered by indifference and who tends to idealize what he admires" was more likely to drop out of law school than were those students who were less warm and agreeable. Moreover, such individuals tend to be a small percentage of the student body population of a law school from the outset. In addition, "law students are insecure, defensive, distant, and lacking in maturity and socialization." As if that were not bad enough, "law students' morality" is less concerned about "justice, fairness, equality, and social utility, rather than the formal rules." It has been found that "law students disproportionately rely on analytic, rational thought to make decisions, rather than focusing on the emotional or humanistic consequences of their decisions.... A disinterest in emotions and in interpersonal concerns appears to exist long before law school, even though it may be intensified during law school.... As a result of their legal education, "students may ignore the social and emotional consequences of decision-making."

In 2005, a UCLA School of Law Public Law & Legal Theory Research article entitled, "Perception of Lawyers - A Transnational Study of Student Views on the Image of Law and Lawyers" was published in the International Journal of the Legal Profession. According to that article, only 21% of the students at UCLA Law School believed that lawyers are trustworthy and ethical. "Students were not told the purpose of the survey until after they had responded..., the questionnaires were anonymous..., and the response rate was extremely high... between 95% and 98%" of the students in the classes.

The above finding suggests that most law students with those perceptions either "don't mind doing something they consider dishonorable or sleazy" or "think they somehow will be different as lawyers" even though they share those perceptions. "Are Beliefs About Lawyers' Behavior a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? The study above noted that law students based their perceptions of lawyers through exposure to news, popular culture, and familiar or friends who are lawyers. If their exposure to lawyers has given them a certain perception of the profession, perhaps that perception then affects which students join the profession. It may be that students who are not bothered by the negative perception of lawyers are more likely to join and stay in the profession. Those who are bothered by their perceptions of lawyers either don't join the profession at all or leave quickly, rather than stay in the profession and try to change the customs and rules that guide lawyer behavior."

In 2002, the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association prepared a report entitled, "Public Perceptions of Lawyers Consumer Research Findings". The findings were as follows: "Americans say that lawyers are greedy, manipulative, and corrupt. Personal experiences with lawyers substantiate these beliefs.... In fact, "the legal profession is among the least reputed institutions in American society.... Lawyers have a reputation for winning at all costs, and for being driven by profit and self-interest, rather than client interest." Lawyers "are believed to manipulate both the system and the truth.... Lawyers' tactics are said to border on the unethical, and even illegal. This idea does not just come from the media. Personal experiences bear it out."

According to the 2005 article from UCLA School of Law Public Law & Legal Theory Research, in the United States, "lawyers are among the most distrusted professionals.... In the US a recent Gallup poll reiterated the same dismal results as numerous other surveys: the public image of US lawyers is extremely poor. Lawyers are distrusted more than such normally suspect groups as journalists, politicians, and business executives.... Journalists and politicians are rated as having higher levels of honesty and ethical standards.... A 1997 Harris Poll contained this sobering note on the public perception of the character of American lawyers: 'Recent Harris Polls have found that public attitudes to lawyers and law firms, which were already low, continue to get worse. Lawyers have seen a dramatic decline in their 'prestige' which has fallen faster than any other occupation over the last twenty years....' In 1977 over a third of the public (36%) believed that lawyers had very great prestige; 20 years later that had fallen to 19%. In other words, almost half of the people who accorded lawyers great prestige then do not do so today. No other occupation has fallen so sharply.... The study found that lawyers, on the whole, enjoy high prestige. They were, however, not regarded as being very trustworthy or ethical."

It seems that as the public's perception of lawyers' behavior worsens, those individuals who enter the field have an increasing lack of honesty, ethics and integrity. In other words, the quality of people who become members of the Bar is lowered with each successive wave of law school graduates.

The American University Law Review article concluded that, "Law schools can change, but promoting change in the self-selection processes of those who decide to come to law school would be much more difficult."

The circumstances to my applying to and attending law school were atypical. I had come from a family of doctors and dentists and began college as a pre-med student, intending to become a doctor myself. However, even with the help of the tutor most recommended by the professor, organic chemistry and I did not connect. I suddenly realized that I needed to select a different major and make a different career choice. When I took my first course in economics, I found the subject very interesting, excelled academically and liked the fact that taking on such a major left me many options of potential careers, especially after I added a business emphasis to my major (the closest thing to an undergraduate business major available at UCLA at that time).

In my last year of college, while my classmates were discussing what they intended to do with their degree, I still had no idea because although I had left my options open, I had never envisioned doing anything other than practice medicine. I therefore decided to attend law school because I thought that I would learn skills that would be useful in something other than practicing law and it gave me an additional three years before I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. When I finished law school, I met with the career counselors in order to see what I could do with my law degree, other than practice law. To my surprise and dismay, I was told that the degree was really only useful for the practice of law.

I then reluctantly began my career as an attorney, but soon realized that I actually enjoyed the practice of law, was successful in the results I obtained for my clients and that clients appreciated having an attorney who was a healer and not a creator of conflict. It seems that while I was unable to heal people suffering from medical ailments, I am able to heal people in the manner in which I resolve their conflicts. In doing the research for and actually writing this article, I have realized that I am an old school attorney because I like to peacefully resolve disputes if at all possible.

Apparently, "Beliefs About Lawyers' Behavior" is a "Self-Fulfilling Prophecy."