“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
— William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2 –
The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
MOBILE, Ala. — It’s Joe Cain Day, the Sunday before Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras Day, when some people on the Gulf Coast feast before some Christians observe a day of fasting on Ash Wednesday. The day started out cold, but the sun is shining now.
I may make it downtown for the party later, but for now I want to riff on a nagging question. How can we run a successful democracy if the people who write our laws and defend us in court are considered the most despised profession in America?
Well that’s not quite accurate. In spite of this perception, even by those in the legal profession itself, there are professions more despised than attorneys. Lobbyists, members of Congress, telemarketers, used car salesmen and labor union leaders rank lower on Gallup’s public perception rankings of honesty and ethics in the professions.
Bankers and journalists rank a tad above lawyers on this scale, while the public tends to like preachers, cops, teachers, doctors and nurses.
It has been written that “society has hated lawyers since the dawn of time. The law is a profession that often gets little respect, in part because the bad tends to overshadow the good.”
I don’t know about that, but it’s clear that lawyers were not well liked even in Shakespeare’s time.
It’s also been written — and I’m not making this up, you can Google it: “Please, take your law degree and wipe your ass with it, because in the court of public opinion, you’ve contributed nothing to society.”
According to the latest Pew Research Center survey on professional public esteem, lawyers were rated at the bottom of the barrel. Outside of the profession, no one really cares about “your prestigious legal pedigrees. Lawyers are apparently the dregs of society.”
Only 18 percent of Americans surveyed think lawyers contribute “a lot” to society. While there have been modest declines in public appreciation for several occupations, the order of the ratings is roughly the same as it was in 2009. Among the 10 occupations the survey asked respondents to rate, lawyers are at the bottom of the list. About one-in-five Americans (18%) say lawyers contribute a lot to society, while 43% say they make some contribution; fully a third (34%) say lawyers contribute not very much or nothing at all.
There is even academic researching both backing up the claim that people don’t like lawyers, and prescriptions for what the profession can do to counter this perception. Crime, Public Opinion, and Civil Liberties: The Tolerant Public, by Shmuel Lock looks at other public opinion research and indicates that those who have obtained a legal education are generally more protective of civil libertarian ideals than the mass public, although this is not portrayed in the mass media.
“Contrary to reports in the mass media, the mass public is relatively protective of civil liberties,” Lock writes. He goes on to talk about how lawyers play a crucial role in a democratic society, but he is missing a big part of the story. Without lawyers, how would we write the laws we live by? How would we be defended in court if wrongly accused of crimes? How would we get back at bad actor corporations that allow workers to be hurt on the job and pollute our environment?
Let me submit another argument for why lawyers are held in such contempt and what the profession needs to do about it.
It’s really not that hard to figure out if you think about it. For many decades, its was considered unethical for an attorney to advertise or promote themselves. When the bar began relaxing those restrictions a few years ago, what kind of advertising popped up on billboards and television? Ambulance chasing hucksters who solicit people to sue insurance companies. This is designed by a certain class of big law firms to gain a monopoly of clients. It is not designed to enhance the public’s perception of the legal profession. This is a big mistake.
Corporations know how to manipulate public perceptions with advertising, marketing and public relations. Why does the legal profession seem so ignorant and inept at it? Maybe because they are new to it and arrogant in their wealth and power and expect little newspaper reporters to come to their rescue? Not any more. The kind of two-sided journalism that served lawyers and the courts so well in the 20th century is no more. Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid newspapers and Fox News are not going to help. But there is something we can do on the Web Press.
When I worked in the public opinion survey research lab at the University of Alabama first in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s, the entire operation was paid for by the likes of AT&T. Every survey we did on elections or the environment was underwritten by an ongoing survey measuring public perception of the phone company. Like the power company and other corporations, they are always interested in using the mass media system to at least keep a majority of people on their side.
When the phones don’t work and the power goes out, people get mad. But when they see (union) workers out there fixing the problem, they feel better. Of course they are never told by the media that those workers are in a union. Newspaper publishers have hated organized labor for as long as there have been newspaper publishers and labor unions. When the Newhouse papers in Alabama refer to “trial lawyers,” it is meant as a slur. Lawsuits are bad for business, and since “economic development” is the modus operandi (MO) for every news organization in the South, lawyers are therefore bad.
Nobody knows this because, well, people get their news from television, which gets its news from newspapers and wire services. They are not providing all the information people need to make informed decisions, in spite of their special rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
We can do better on the Web Press. But that may not happen until the big corporate chain newspaper companies stop publishing the newspapers and we have a chance to compete on the Web. It also won’t happen until lawyers realize they play a key role in making democracy work by funding the free press. They always have. They just don’t know it — because no one has written or broadcast the story.
We can’t just blame the uneducated public. How are they going to know anything if no one is writing and broadcasting the alternative story?
Legal advertising has always provided a major chunk of the money that paid for the printing of newspapers. It also helped pay the salaries of reporters to cover public affairs and the courts.
In recent years, I made the rounds talking to trial lawyers and tried to explain this point of view. But instead of listening to me, they are just throwing their money away by giving it to Republican judges who are less inclined to push “tort reform,” a term that means placing limits on lawsuits and jury awards.
They are also trying to do some of their own public relations with a professional association that so far seems completely ineffective. The American Association for Justice (formerly the National Trial Lawyers Association) has a Website where it says the mission is to work “to make sure people have a fair chance to receive justice through the legal system when they are injured by the negligence or misconduct of others – even when it means taking on the most powerful corporations.”
The reason they changed the name is directly related to low public perception and negative media coverage. The problem is, none of their PR is helping us build the Web Press for the future. This is what we must call it if we are to succeed. It can’t be called the capitalist “media” or a free “blog.” All our laws and court precedents, from the First Amendment to New York Times vs. Sullivan case and beyond, call for a “free press” that is charged with covering “public affairs.”
There is nothing written anywhere about a special right to cover football, sensational crime or celebrity gossip. Nor is it just about covering the political horse race called “politics.” There is way more to it than that.
If American journalism, the legal profession and organized labor are going to regain the public’s respect, they better start thinking about producing positive image advertising. It won’t do any good to spend that money on Super Bowl ads. They need to start spending money to run that advertising in a place on the Web where we are committed to the kind of scientific objectivity envisioned by those who invented the idea before it was corrupted during the Great Depression in the 20th century.
Consider one more case study. Did you notice what happened in newspaper and television advertising right after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? British Petroleum had a marketing team organized within a few minutes of the disaster. They began developing positive image ads talking about how their local workers were working around the clock to stop the spill, clean up the mess and ensure the seafood was safe to eat. The mainstream media — funded by these ads — went along with the story and helped BP try to recover its positive image on the part of the public. It didn’t work on everybody. But see how many cars are back on the roads in a place like Gulf Shores, Alabama, and you can see that it did have a positive impact on business.
I am working on a book and documentary to further explain all of this. But for starters, perhaps lawyers and union leaders should start to learn about the story by buying and reading my book, Jump On The Bus: How the Independent Web Press Could Save American Democracy.
There are more stories to tell. But this is a good place to start.
© 2016, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.