Friday, February 02, 2007

Public Perceptions of Lawyers

Last month, there was some discussion on this blog relating to Mike's post, Are Lawyers UNIQUELY Amoral?, my follow-up post, Why do People Need Lawyers?, and others. A key point in the discussion was how to get the general public to appreciate the importance of lawyers to society. One of my former students, Tam Ho, who is now a judicial clerk, offers the following insights:

"It seems to me there are two distinct issues - (1) how lawyers are beneficial, and (2) that lawyers are beneficial. I hope I'm wrong here, but I think it may be the case that it will be impossible to explain the first question, because the answer involves some fairly rigorous thinking about philosophy (rule utilitarianism, as Mike's post points out, epistemology, ethics, etc.). I think it may be somewhat like trying to explain to a lay person how tensor calculus is beneficial to society -- can't do it.

"But I don't think that the lawyer bashing comes exclusively as a result of the public's lack of understanding for what lawyers do. After all, the public doesn't have any problems at all accepting the fact that tensor calculus is beneficial to society, even though they don't even know what a tensor is. They understand that without it, we wouldn't have cars, planes, and electronic voting machines, even though they don't understand the way calculus is used in those products.


"So -- and I think this is perfectly consistent with the question posed -- perhaps it would be better to focus on how to convince the public that lawyers are beneficial, and forget about the other, more ambitious question. Maybe they can understand that without lawyers, we can't have safe cars, cheap airfare, and a right to vote, even though they may not understand how that is."

I have a few reactions to these intriguing thoughts, but I'll save them for another day. I wanted to post Tam's arguments here to give other readers and bloggers a chance to respond, enhance, etc.

8 comments:

Adrienne B. Koch said...

This brings to mind an argument I heard very early in my career as to why lawyers should make a point of supporting organizations that provide legal services to the poor. The argument was that while everyone can understand that the poor need things like food, clothing, education, job training, etc., many (most?) people would not also put lawyers on that list. But of course in some instances a lawyer can be crucial to preserving those other things -- by pressing a claim for benefits, arguing landlord/tenant cases, helping with child support or the like. The claim was that unless and until the public develops a better understanding of this, lawyers have to step up to the plate to support these organizations because "if they don't, no one else will." I have never reviewed any statistics that would indicate whether it is true that non-lawyers tend not to support these organizations, but if it is -- and if the reason is because non-lawyers do not understand why the poor might need lawyers -- then at least in this instance I'm not sure how one would separate the "that" from the "how".

Michael Yuri said...

In your earlier post, you asked "whether it is possible to find a compelling example that would make it clear that justice can be advanced when people refuse to talk to the police until a lawyer is present."

I thought about this a bit, and came up with a slightly different question that I think might help to demonstrate the importance of lawyers. I would ask criminal defense lawyers the following question: "Can you describe a case in which you initially believed that your client was guilty, but later were convinced of his innocence?"

The best examples would be the more extreme cases, where 1) the initial impression was based not on a general "most defendants are guilty, so this guy's probably guilty" reasoning, but on specific facts of the case that seemed to point to guilt, and 2) the facts that eventually convinced the lawyer of innocence were powerful and unequivocal.

I think stories of this type could potentially go a long way toward explaining why it's important that everyone, even those who appear guilty, should have someone advocating for them.

But to bring this back around to the issue you raised in this post, this seems to me like more of a "how" approach than a "that" approach.

Michael C. Dorf said...

The work of the Innocence Project seems like a good example in the family of things Michael Yuri asks about.

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