If you want tyrants to rule, first kill all the lawyers

Most Lawyers are good people. They go to law school to be able to help people and to make the world a better place. Lawyers are one of the few professions that provide pro bono or free services to the poor. These services are often provided by City and State Bar Associations, made up of local lawyers.

Many lawyers do good deeds outside their law practice. They coach little league sports, serve on community boards, teach Sunday school in their Churches. I often see attorneys at Charity events and volunteering for causes like Habitat for Humanity, feeding the homeless, homeless shelters and endless other deserving causes.

If these things are true, then why do attorneys in general often rank so low with the public?

Because I am an attorney, I am often subjected to attacks on the legal profession. I try to ignore them but to no avail. I regret that the insurance industry propaganda has caused so many people to be anti-trial lawyer.

Yes, some attorneys are bad and some take advantage of their clients. Those situations make me angry and sad. My sadness is for the victims and because of the condemnation of the whole legal profession.

Lawyers are often a subject of public speculation. I cannot defend all attorneys, but I am sure that the percentage of incompetent, immoral, or dishonest attorneys is no greater than the same percentage of bad people in other professions.

However, attorneys seem to stay in the spotlight. Perhaps attorneys are examined closer because they are in a position of such trust? Attorneys hold an elevated position of trust and have a fiduciary duty to their clients, many of which are helpless and vulnerable.

I ponder why it is that when an attorney goes astray it seems more newsworthy than when other professionals are charged with misdeeds. Why do the media focus more on the negative stories involving attorneys? I do not know the answer as to why misdeeds of some are buried in the paper or never reported and an attorney’s misconduct is always a top story.

I find it curious that if a banker embezzles money, he is a crook who happens to work in a bank. An attorney who commits a crime is an “attorney” who steals. I am not criticizing aggressive reporting, I am instead making an observation about the subjective commentary that accompanies news stories, and in this case posts on a blog.

Why do attorneys in general have such a negative reputation? On reflection, I think the blame must rest with us as attorneys.

I hope the book I wrote for attorneys, “Building a Presence in your City” helps some find ways to improve your community while at the same time enhancing your reputation and the reputations of attorneys everywhere. Follow your passion.

We as a group should do more to promote the good that is done by attorneys in the media and to police our profession more closely. We cannot rely on the media to publish positive news.

Maybe part of the explanation is the fact that bad news sells and good news does not get reported as much. Maybe if it was newsworthy, the good deeds of attorneys would get reported more often. Each of us should have a charitable cause.

Perhaps if it were newsworthy, you might read each day about the time and financial sacrifice that goes into the good deeds performed by the National, State and local Associations. The headlines might address the thousands of hours of:

  • Free work donated by attorneys to the poor,
  • The scholarships given to local students by local bar associations,
  • The Basket Brigade (Thanksgiving dinners) sponsored by law firms,
  • The many attorneys who volunteer for coaching in little league sports,
  • The local members who donate their time to Habitat for Humanity,
  • City and County Leadership programs,
  • Junior Achievement or
  • Countless hours of legal coaching that goes into the high school Mock Trial Program or
  • The fact that attorneys lead the country in attorney financial contributions to Charities like the United Way.

This list could continue, however, I think you get my point.

As in all professions, there are bad attorneys. I expect that many people have had some unpleasant experiences with attorneys. As an advocate for one person, you almost always have to disagree with another person. This obviously is most prevalent in litigation and in cases involving domestic and divorce situations.

The public should be aware that lawyers are required to adhere to a professionalism oath and certain standards of conduct. A violation of these standards can result in a public reprimand, suspension of the lawyer’s license to practice law and disbarment. The State Bars are entrusted with the responsibility to investigate all complaints against lawyers and do so vigorously.

In addition, State Bar Associations also maintain a trust fund, funded through dues and donations from lawyers, designed to assist clients of lawyers that have stolen funds.

What other group does that?

No other profession has as large, as well-funded, and as aggressive a disciplinary process for their members.

I have been practicing law in Savannah Georgia since 1984. My observation is that most attorneys are decent, hardworking, ethical individuals concerned about their clients. But having high media exposure makes an attorney an easy target for criticism.

I believe in my heart that most attorneys are dedicated to their clients and strive for the highest standard of professional services.

I think that where we as a profession, may sometimes fail, is in allowing the few bad apples to exist and permit them to be the main focus in the media. I do not hesitate to criticize the actions of an attorney I think is wrong. Likewise, I often stand up and speak out when improper attacks are made on my profession.

Maybe one answer is for attorneys to enhance the community service and charity work of attorneys?

Perhaps we as attorneys should each set our professional and ethical standards higher. I do not know how to prevent attorneys from being the butt of jokes. How can we as a profession gain the respect and trust of the general public?
Perhaps this book brings one answer, community service.

I do know that criticism of attorneys is often powerful and I feel compelled to respond whenever given the opportunity. A perfect example of the verbal attacks attorneys have endured throughout history is an often misused quote from Shakespeare. Attorney critics frequently allege that Shakespeare said”First, kill all the lawyers…”

If you read Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, part 2 act 4, you will learn that a scoundrel, Dick the Butcher (a henchmen to Cade, a political rebel), in a conspiracy to destroy the country’s social order and stability states “First we’ll kill all the lawyers”.

This quote is from a murderer and an anarchist (one who believes in political disorder and violence). The plan was that if the social underclass were to kill all educated people (anyone that could read and write) they could cause a revolt.

Cade actually had a man killed simply because he could read. Cade’s real agenda was to eliminate all opposition to his evil plan and to seize all power and rule as a dictator.

The point that Shakespeare seemed to make, by this statement, is that in the absence of laws and lawyers to help protect the rights of the individual citizens, dictators flourish and the rights of the people can be abridged. Education and the law are a dictator’s worst enemies.

Attorneys are neither angels nor devils, but they are necessary, like a standing army. An army protects society from enemies. Likewise, it is important to make sure that powerful or corrupt companies and individuals meet their legal obligations to the average American. It is usually attorneys that uncover misdeeds (even of other attorneys).

Many of our country’s founding fathers, individuals with great concern for the rights of people, were Lawyers, as were some of our greatest presidents.

Perhaps the sheer importance of attorneys to our society is a reason for their place in the media spotlight.

We only have to look at a country where there are few or no attorneys such as China or Cuba to understand how fortunate we are to have attorneys fighting for our freedoms and legal rights.

Even in Shakespeare’s time, in 1450, lawyers were the people’s last defense against oppression and evil. In 1450 the rebels were the evil.

Today it is attorneys who defend citizens against oppression, and the evils and corruption of corporations and individuals.

Simply put, to be a nation of laws we need lawyers.

My translation of Shakespeare’s quote is: “If you want tyrants to rule, first kill all the lawyers”.

Sign me,
Howard Spiva,

Attorney, and proud of it!

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