Thursday, October 19, 2006

Legal Profession -- Then and Now

In a Gallup Poll in the US last year, only 16% of the respondents thought that lawyers were honest and ethical, above only car salesmen and stockbrokers. This compares with nurses (83%) and medical doctors (68%).

Michael Asimov, wrote in a paper published in 2000:
"Polling data demonstrates clearly that the popular perception of the character and the ethics of American lawyers, and the prestige of the profession, have plunged precipitously since the 1970s."

He then goes on to justify the low light in which lawyers are perceived in these words:
  • Lawyers will always be distrusted, in part because their assigned task is to play whatever role and manipulate whatever law a client’s interest demands.
  • Lawyers tend to represent the rich and powerful; naturally everyone else who can’t afford lawyers resent that.
  • Even more significant, lawyers are doomed to be unloved because criminal practice is their most public function.
  • As lawyers see it, justice requires that an accused person have the benefit of appropriate process, such as the reasonable doubt rule or the privilege against self incrimination. This perspective is not shared by most members of the public, especially when it comes to criminal law. Most people think that justice means finding the truth regardless of the adversarial system, procedural technicalities, statutory loopholes, police or prosecutorial misconduct, or lawyers’ tricks.
Asimow later quotes the findings in a Harris Poll. In its introduction to polling data, Harris Poll (#37, Aug. 11, 1997) wrote:
"Recent Harris Polls have found that public attitudes to lawyers and law firms, which were already low, continue to get worse. Lawyers have seen a dramatic decline in their “prestige” which has fallen faster than that of any other occupation, over the last twenty years. Fewer people have confidence in law firms than in any of the major institutions measured by Harris including the Congress, organized labor, or the federal government. It is not a pretty picture.
In 1977 over a third of the public (36%) believed that lawyers had “very great prestige.” Today, twenty years later, that has fallen to 19%. In other words, almost half of the people who accorded lawyers great prestige then do not do so today. No other occupation has fallen so sharply....
For the last thirty years Harris has been tracking the confidence people have in the leaders of various institutions. In the most recent survey, only 7% of the public said they had a great deal of confidence in the people running law firms. This places law firms at the bottom of the institutions on the list. The 7% figure is not only the lowest number recorded for law firms over thirty years, it is actually the lowest number recorded for any institution over thirty years."

This stands in stark contrast to Mr M C Chagla's words, written after a lifetime on the Bench and at the Bar, quoted below from his autobiography (Roses in December), penned in 1973:

"The Bar is one of the most important of all professions. He who joins it belongs to a great fraternity. The most valuable asset he enjoys is complete independence and integrity. He is no man's servant. He is not compelled to do any work which he does not want to do. He cannot be compelled to argue in a manner which, though it might please his client, would, in his opinion, be detrimental or prejudicial to his cause. He has to be courteous to the judge, but at the same time he can maintain his integrity and the right to express his own views, even though they may not be acceptable or palatable to the presiding dignitary."

How things change with time!

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