How Can Democracy Survive When the Legal Profession is So Despised by the Public?

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“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.

  34 comments for “How Can Democracy Survive When the Legal Profession is So Despised by the Public?

    February 7, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Old West proverb: “A town that’s too small to support one lawyer can always support two.”

    A question concerning male lawyers I have personally known…

    On a scale of 1 to 10, a rating of 1 is usually a really, really corrupt lawyer whose dishonest acts will literally dispatch one or more of his close family members to early graves.

    On the flip side, an attorney with a rating of 10 will be so scruplessly honest in both his public and private life that those who are close to him will be required to live their lives the same way he does for just about as long as he lives. Said lawyer will do “the absolutely correct legal and lawful thing” no matter whom it hurts. What’s more, he will make no moral judgements and–as a good debater should–he will most likely stand ready to defend his positions against any and all comers.

    The majority of attorneys–including the incompetent ones–probably have ratings which fall somewhere between 2 or 3 and 8 or 9.

    Now, how to hell does one rationalize these two extremes in order to effectively promote the legal profession in the marketplace?

    Carefully, very carefully or simply lie a lot?

    P.S. Good initial essay on the subject, Glenn.

  2. Nancy
    February 7, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    I am a lawyer. I did read the article. It was a thought I have had myself but not fully fleshed out like the article. I am conflicted about law and lawyers. Like a necessary evil. I wish there was not a need for lawyers to be so adversarial and the profession is so paranoid and rigid. How can we respect this contradiction of “ethics versus a life” ex:
    a RULE is more important than an innocent life. That is law. Lets say I have a client from El Salvador who is fleeing the violence of the gangs (country is now controlled by the Maras and the Bario 18 street gangs). If she is deported — I know, that within days of her return, the gang, that controls her village, will rape her as punishment for fleeing to the United States to seek Asylum and then dispose her dead body in the street as an example for anyone else who thinks to defy the gangs their weekly extortion fees (called “renta”) by leaving the village. So, I can not represent her if I know or even think she is lying about part of her testimony in her asylum case.

      February 7, 2016 at 4:56 pm

      Without the bill of Rights, blind justice and the presumption of innocence, attorneys at law would probably be little more than effective community organizers. I did not mean to downgrade the profession in any way. All y’all have damned difficult jobs in both the public and the private sector,–especially in the field of criminal law. My brother-in-law is a retired corporate attorney who worked for this city and never lost a case. He is one of the good guys and a definite 10. He even called the police on me and my dog during a visit to his home, because he was an officer of the court and had no choice.

    • February 9, 2016 at 7:17 pm

      Lawyers are the Knights and defenders of the people against the otherwise overwhelming power of global enterprises and the suffering visited upon Latin America by the corporations and their allies must be confronted in court. With control of our own media we keep the message straight and educate the court of public opinion!

      News flash! Bernie just won new Hampshire primary!

    February 7, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Sorry about the typos.

    Without the bill of Rights, blind justice and the presumption of innocence, attorneys at law would probably be little more than community organizers. I did not mean to downgrade the profession in any way. All y’all have damned difficult jobs in both the public and the private sector–especially in the field of criminal law. My brother-in-law is a retired corporate attorney who worked for this city and never lost a case. He is one of the good guys and a definite 10. He even called the cops on me and my dog during a visit to his home, because he had to as an officer of the court.

  4. George Huddleston III
    February 9, 2016 at 12:57 am

    Unfortunately, Glynn quotes Dick the Butcher “out of context”, something generally frowned upon journalistically. The line appears in Henry VI, Part II, Act 4, Scene 2, a portion of which reads as follows:

    I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat
    and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,
    that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

    The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

    Jack Cade, a “working man”, argues for his anointment as king and describes the several pseudo-utopian absurdities to which he would introduce his new subjects, as quoted above and throughout Scene 2. Dick the Butcher, adding a more ridiculous proposition to the list, makes the oft quoted suggestion regarding lawyers, one that has unfortunately passed through literature and the media unadulterated, but is almost always quoted entirely “out of context”.

    By way of example, immediately after that, the clerk of Chatham is brought in. Smith the Weaver introduces him. ” The clerk of Chatham. He can write and read and cast accompt.” Jack Cade replies: “O, monstrous!”

    Such is the distorted world of Jack Cade’s creation, where the ability to read and write is deemed “monstrous.”

    Of course, all of the foregoing is dependent upon the play actually having been written by Shakespeare and not Sir Francis Bacon, as some have asserted, which would have made the joke even more obvious. Bacon served as Solicitor General, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor between 1607 and 1618. If you buy into the Bacon theory, it is doubtful that such an accomplished lawyer would have had any of his characters speak such a line seriously.

    The line about the lawyers is merely an Elizabethan joke, a humorous quip in that time and this one, and should be taken as such, unless you believe we live today in the imaginary early 17th century world of Jack Cade’s mind.

    If you happen to be a registered Republican, please refrain from trying to identify Jack Cade’s fantasy with any current Democratic candidate for office, if at all possible.

    • February 9, 2016 at 11:15 am

      My point in using it is that’s the layman’s impression of lawyers — and lawyers are doing nothing to counter it.

      • Nancy
        February 9, 2016 at 11:26 am

        from where do you glean the opinion that lawyers are “doing nothing to counter it”?

  5. February 9, 2016 at 11:36 am

    The only advertising the public sees are ambulance chasing ads. If you would sponsor us, we would have the budget to cover more legal stories — and not in a way that slurs the role attorneys and juries play in the judicial branch of government.

  6. February 9, 2016 at 11:38 am

    I proposed to a large number of trial lawyers as long as seven years ago that they need image ads just like corporations, and that I was willing to produce them and run them and use the money to cover the courts. This has still not happened.

  7. February 9, 2016 at 11:41 am

    I did do this story explaining how Karl Rover and Bill Canary and the Business Council of Alabama ruined the Alabama Supreme Court:

  8. George Huddleston III
    February 9, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    I would ask any interested readers to distinguish their thoughts on some attorney advertising with Section 34-3-24, Code of Alabama, which describes the crime of champerty and reads as follows:

    “Any attorney-at-law, either before or after action brought, who gives, offers or promises to give a valuable consideration to another person as an inducement to placing in the hands of such attorney or in the hands of any partnership of attorneys, or in the hands of any other attorney, a demand of any kind for the purpose of bringing an action or making claim against another person, corporation or partnership, or who gives or offers or promises a valuable consideration to any person in consideration of such person having so placed in his hands as an attorney, or of any other attorney, partnership or firm of attorneys, a demand of any kind for the purpose of bringing an action or making claim against another; or who employs or offers to employ any person to search for or procure clients to be brought to such attorney or any other attorney, or partnership or firm of attorneys; or who employs or offers to employ a person to solicit, search for or procure business for himself as attorney or for any other attorney, firm or partnership of attorneys shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, on conviction, shall be fined in a sum not exceeding $1,000.00 and also be removed and disbarred from practicing as an attorney-at-law in this state, and may be imprisoned in the county jail or sentenced to hard labor for the county for a term not exceeding six months, at the discretion of the court trying the case.”

    I sometimes have difficulty distinguishing advertisements that suggest to an audience: “I can get you the money you deserve” (or that make similar promises of pecuniary benefit) from the prohibitions of this statute. Or another one: “If you, or any relative or friend of yours has taken (insert pharmaceutical product here), you may be entitled to significant compensation. Call 800-###-#### for a free consultation.” Where is the line actually drawn, or is the devil in the details? I’d be interested in learning what others’ thoughts and experience have been relative to this issue.

      February 9, 2016 at 5:04 pm

      I suggest to you that this relates to “self-advertising” and does not qualify under the statute you quote. On the other hand, “advertising and marketing” appear to be very dirty words in and around the judicial system.

      This also serves to explain why Glenn’s overatures have fallen on deaf ears and he has heard nothing but silence in his quest to help support attorney-client relationships.

      Having said that, what are your thoughts on volunteerism–although I have mixed emotions about doing pro bono work for all those rich guys in big-time law offices.

  9. February 9, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I don’t know how the ambulance chasing ads that now fund local television news got past the bar, especially in the case of those in Birmingham who go on the television news/talk shows and offer legal advice in exchange for the ad money.

  10. February 9, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    I am not talking about ads that solicit business. I am talking about producing ads that show how attorneys play a critical role in a democratic society by upholding the specific sections in the Bill of Rights part of the U.S. Constitution:

      February 9, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      P.S. To paraphrase an old political expression, it has been common knowledge that one telephone call, one email or one snail mail is the equivalent of 1,000 of any of these three communication vehicles, simply because 999 people out of every 1,000 are too lazy to express their feelings on any given matter. Today, petitions are rapidly replacing one-on-one communications due to simplicity and a really huge volume of email signatures,

      In addition to the original 56 signers, just think how many of the 1,000,000 or so Colonists in the country at the time of the American Revolution would have gladly signed on to a Declaration Of Independence petition–excluding King George III’s Loyalists, of course.

  11. February 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    We could talk about the Forth Amendment, and how attorneys protect our rights against illegal searches and seizures.

    We could talk about the Fifth Amendment, and how attorneys protect us from being “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    We could talk about the Sixth Amendment, and how attorneys are critical in making sure that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”

    We could talk about the Seventh Amendment and how “the right of trial by jury shall be preserved,” in spite of corporations and Republicans wanting to limit those rights because it might be bad for business.

    We could explain the Eighth Amendment, on video, by showing how “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted,” even if corrupt presidents like George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney think it would be okay to torture prisoners on foreign soil in a time of war.

  12. February 9, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    It is quite obvious to me, if not to everybody else, that the mass public does not understand any of this, mainly because all they know about it is what they hear on talk radio and Fox News. They might have known more about it back when newspapers were actually making money covering news and people were reading newspapers. But if you read my book, you will see the only explanation I know of in print anywhere about how American objective journalism got corrupted for money a long time ago.

    Jump On The Bus: How the Independent Web Press Could Save American Democracy – Kindle Edition – by Glynn Wilson (Author):

  13. February 9, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    My point being that while The Press gets its special rights under the First Amendment, there are five other amendments to the constitution that deal with the legal system. And those rights have been chipped away at in this corporate-controlled, PR world we live in, where people hear more from the damn so-called tea party than they do from intelligent, educated people who should understand that we can effect public opinion with the use of marketing and advertising as well as public relations and journalism.

  14. February 9, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    Listen to what Bernie Sanders is saying on the campaign trail. Why do you think he is getting so much support and attention?

    You might notice that we actually gave him more air time in a recent story and video we did than any other media organization in America. On the Web, we don’t have to do stupid stories like the recent one I wrote about in Pensacola where they tried to find a Democrat at a Trump rally, or limit ourselves to a 30-second sound bite.

    We actually devoted 7 minutes and 24 seconds to a video to go along with a story about a columnist making the trek to Birmingham from Mobile for the Bernie Sanders rally. And guess what? We let him talk a little bit for himself without interrupting with stupid questions designed to be “fair and balanced.”

    Read the column here:

    Watch the video here:

  15. February 9, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Now I know all of this must be incredibly difficult to understand and follow for people who got a law degree 40 years ago and still dictate letters to secretaries and still like to read newspapers and books in print and have not fully acclimated to reading on a computer screen. But if you expect people to pay you for your expert services, why do I get so much blowback when I try to get people to pay me for my expert services? I am not some little cub reporter working for a crappy corporate chain newspaper like the Mobile Press-Register. In addition to 35 years of experience working for some of the top names in American journalism, including the New York Times and The Nation magazine, I spent a decade not just teaching as a college professor but conducting research. My specialty was media effects on public opinion. Do you really expect me to save the legal profession and our state and national political systems as a free blogger? Sorry. That’s not good enough.

    So I am asking you all to at the very least pay the same price you pay for the crappy newspaper subscription to help us build the economy for the Web Press. All you have to do is click here, enter your amount, check the recurring donation box, and you will be making a difference:

  16. February 9, 2016 at 2:57 pm

    Seven years ago, when I tried to explain all this to a very rich trial lawyer in Alexander City, Alabama, the last thing he said to me was: “I can’t figure out how we’re going to make any money out of this.” At that point I gave up.

    But since there is a renewed interest among some trial lawyers in Mobile, I am willing to try again. How are you going to make money if the Republicans control the courts and public opinion and everybody thinks lawyers and lawsuits are bad for business, and the courts are just another place to practice corrupt politics.

    I have some experience changing public opinion on a very big national story that came out of an Alabama case, by the way. Remember this political prosecution?

    Solid Arguments: Why President Obama Should Pardon Don Siegelman

  17. February 9, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    This also provides a case and point. When the film maker of the Siegelman documentary came to us and advertised the fund raiser to pay for the film, the campaign was stalled at $60,000. After three months of promotion by us on this site, the last time I checked before it expired, the GoFundMe was up to almost $84,000 from a $1200 ad. Do the math. This form of advertising works.

  18. February 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree. Lawyers, like independent journalists keep us all free. And if Business Council and media moguls control syndicate media, then it up to us, to support, in all ways (especially financially) true journalism, investigative journalism, unbiased journalism, INDEPEDENT journalism.

  19. February 9, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    I make an offer (a serious offer, to you lawyers)
    : if you will read it, I will pay for your “copy” of Glynn’s Kindle book, “Jump on the Bus”. Let Glynn know, and he will bill me

    • February 10, 2016 at 7:43 am

      This is a FIRM (unlimited) offer, here. Please ACCEPT my offer, read his book. You will see why we need to read/discuss/tell our educated friends about/ support this talented and committed journalist. The book is fun, enlightening, easy to read, but challenges the reader to DO SOMETHING ABOUT independent, uninhibited journalism.

  20. George Huddleston III
    February 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    I feel obligated to post that, in my experience, there are plenty of reasons to criticize the justice system and a small minority of lawyers for a variety of reasons, but have to say that some of the reasons outlined above are not among them. I know many, many lawyers who do pro bono work. There are some who devote more than 40% of their practices to such endeavors. Only a small number, relatively speaking, advertise in the ways outlined in prior posts. I deplore such ads, but can’t justify curtailing that which the U.S. Supreme Court has stated is a constitutional right.

      February 10, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      I do not know if you were referring to any of my comments, but I hope I said nothing which might demean the pro bono work freely given by attorneys. My reference to pro bono was a reference only to myself, Frankly, I could sure use some pro bono legal advice.

      Come to think of it, just how does one go about receiving such a benefit (as a tenant with a landlord that takes advantage of many residents in a relatively immoral, if not downright illegal way, to say the least)?

      • George Huddleston III
        February 10, 2016 at 8:17 pm

        I wasn’t referring specifically to any of your comments or opinions. In fact, I note with approval your acknowledgement that, as is true of all jobs, professions or callings, some folks are 1’s and some are 10’s. As I am just getting back to responding to you, I had occasion to read Glynn’s 7:57 post regarding the unnamed free blogs devoted to bashing judges and lawyers and President Obama. He doesn’t direct us to them, but despite their motivation and the apparent content of their overall messages (with which I would surely disagree), it’s nice to know that there are (perhaps less than independent) journalists whose work is read by a meaningful following, yet offer their intellectual property gratis.

  21. February 10, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    Then there are cases like this. Birmingham lawyer charged with attempted murder, robbery, kidnapping:

    • George Huddleston III
      February 10, 2016 at 7:42 pm

      An obvious anomaly, so much so that it stands out among the hundreds of such stories published across the country each day, simply because the accused is an attorney.

      The article a couple of years ago regarding the blogger or Facebook poster from Tuscaloosa who was charged with stalking and under the domestic terrorism statute does not fairly represent the media community of which he was a member, either. Let’s not judge by the group, nor permit others to do so unchallenged.

      I think it’s fine to hold lawyers to a high standard, but should we not also do the same with respect to those independent journalists whom Attorney Herndon Inge (above) likewise correctly asserts “keep us free.”

  22. February 10, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    There is a certain blogger in Alabama who devotes his entire time and (free) blogging to showing that all lawyers, judges and courts are corrupt because of a personal vendetta. Apparently a lot of lawyers read it. There is another blogger in DC who does the same thing, even going so far as to assert that as far as politicizing the judicial branch of government, President Obama is worse than Bush. This is absurd on the face of it. But they read him too.

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