One of the comments on Paul's post regarding Stimson's attack on the law firms representing Gitmo (and other) detainees notes that the view expressed by Stimson is fairly widespread. The comment (by Caleb) points to the fact that laypeople commonly ask aspiring or practicing lawyers how they would or do approach representing someone guilty of a heinous crime. I would add to the evidence of the public's discomfort with the seeming amorality of legal practice the fact that tv and movie dramatizations frequently show lawyers facing such moral dilemmas---and that often the "right" thing for the lawyer to do is to find some way to rat out or otherwise turn on his client. In the more sophisticated versions of these dramas, someone makes the rule-utilitarian argument, explaining that everyone has a role to play in our adversarial system of justice, and that even if a lawyer's skills occasionally spring a guilty person, that is a small price to pay for keeping the government honest and avoiding a descent into totalitarianism. That argument is made in such dramas, but rarely successfully.
The question I'd like to pose (as the title of this post indicates) is whether lawyers are uniquely, or even unusually, amoral? The answer is almost certainly not. People in sales, marketing, advertising, and similar fields must frequently pitch products that the public does not need, and that may well be of inferior quality to those of their competitors. Others design and market products---gas-guzzling SUVs, say---that impose substantial negative externalities on society as a whole. I could be wrong, but I don't think that people in these or other professions (e.g., the accountant who figures out how to save the wealthy client millions of tax dollars that would otherwise go towards public projects), come in for nearly the harsh treatment as lawyers do. And when they do---as in Thank You For Smoking, say---one sometimes gets the sense that the critical treatment works because it trades on negative stereotypes about lawyers (even when the person criticized is not technically a lawyer).
So why is the amorality of the legal profession singled out as especially problematic? The answer, I think, is that unlike advertisers, accountants, engineers, and salespeople, we lawyers claim to serve justice. If that's right, then the fascination with the particular injustices achieved by lawyers committed to justice resonates with the public in the same way that sex scandals involving the clergy do. Despite the low esteem in which the public hold lawyers, they expect better of us. And therein lies the rub: A homophobic minister who has a same-sex affair or a supposedly celibate priest who molests minors really has betrayed the ideals he preaches; but a lawyer who represents a guilty client has, by the rule-utilitarian standards of the legal profession, acted honorably. We cannot expect public condemnation of lawyers to abate because the criticism aims at the ideals of the legal profession rather than at deviations from that ideal. And that in turn is what makes Stimson's comments so despicable. As a lawyer, he ought to know better.