IT’S TIME TO GET BACK TO THE BASICS

Georgia Bar Journal, Vol. 4 No. 6; ©State Bar of Georgia, 1999-2010.  Used by permission, all rights reserved.

Most of my time this year has been spent on the subject of public confidence in the justice system.  I have spoken to many civic clubs and bar associations about the troubled relationship between the justice system and the public.  In this issue of the Bar Journal you will find a report on the Bar’s effort to improve that relationship (see page 10).  We have received an excellent response to the Foundations of Freedom program and it should get us moving in the right direction.  However, the most important steps we can take to restore public confidence in lawyers and the legal system will not come from the State Bar – they will come from individual lawyers.  Each lawyer must find a way to regain the respect of that lawyer’s clients and community.

We can begin by reclaiming our passion for the law.  Politicians use the phrase “fire in the belly” to describe the drive that keeps candidates going 24 hours a day during an election.  In the last few days before a trial I find myself with that same feeling.  I am completely focused on the case and I seem to have unlimited energy.  During those times I feel like a combination of Perry Mason and Atticus Finch.  What I need to work on is having that same passion on Monday morning when I’m going to the office instead of the courtroom; feeling that same passion when I meet with a difficult client for the twenty-third time.  We must recapture the excitement we felt about practicing law when we first entered the profession.

The manner in which we recapture the fire may take different forms depending on the individual lawyer.  It may consist of simply setting aside a block of time each week to work on files that require special attention.  We can try volunteering for pro bono work for any one of the agencies that need our time and skill.  For others it may mean taking a chance and giving up one area of practice for another that you really enjoy.

Clients want lawyers who have a passion for their clients.  We must communicate to our clients – each of the, one at a time – that they have hired a human being to represent them – a human being who will devote his or her brain and heart to advocacy for the client – who will listen with an attentive ear, who will prepare with inspiration and perspiration, and we will see a difference in the way the public views our profession.

Before we can obtain the public’s respect we must respect ourselves and our legal system.  I read an article in Trial Magazine, a publication of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, several years ago.  The article focused on the unfortunately common trail tactic of attacking opposing counsel during closing argument.  The author’s opponent referred to “lawyer tricks” and denigrated the author’s efforts in his closing.  When the trial was over the writer spoke with his opponent and told him how troublesome his conduct was.  He reminded the young lawyer that an attack on opposing counsel would cause the jury to lose respect for all lawyers.
When I read the article I recognized myself.  For some time I had routinely referred to good arguments by my opponent as attempts to deceive and urged the jury to ignore such tricks.  I had embarrassed myself and insulted my profession.  Since that time I always compliment my opponent even when it is difficult to find something to compliment.  I explain to the jury why each side needs a lawyer and while I may have a strong disagreement with the lawyer’s client or the position taken, I have great respect for the attorney and the job he is doing.  Think of how many people serve on jury duty and the number that could hear such free public relations each year.

The same approach can work for transaction lawyers.  If you get the chance, compliment the lawyer who prepared the first draft of a contract you are reviewing for the other side in a business transaction.  If probating a will prepared by another lawyer, be sure to mention to your client what a fine professional drafted the will.

We are not hired guns in a cheap western shootout.  We are professionals and we must act that way.  Our clients are always watching and listening to see if all those nasty things said about attorneys are true.  Let’s give them something positive for a change.

The respect we need must be more than between lawyers – it must also exist in bench and bar relations.  It is so tempting when we receive an unfortunate ruling to blame the court – even more tempting when the court really does deserve the blame.  However, I beg you today to avoid taking the easy way out.  Don’t let the disappointment of an adverse outcome cause you to vent with your client against the court.  Try to explain that judges really do try to do the right thing and there is no malice intended if they make a wrong decision.  If we run down the system our clients, who see us as part of the system, will think less of us as well.

I am a huge fan of Rumpole of the Bailey.  Rumpole is a fictional English barrister with a dry sense of humor and a wonderful appreciation of human nature.  He once counseled a young lawyer who had expressed displeasure with a ruling of the court that “contempt of court is a practice best done quietly – much like meditation.”  He understood that sometimes we may feel utter contempt for the manner in which a judge behaved, BUT he also understood that sharing those feelings was of benefit to no one.

Judges must also respect lawyers.  The public looks up to judges – at least they will if the politicians let the judges do their jobs – and the public gets its impression of lawyers in many cases from the attitudes judges show toward attorneys in the courtroom.  If a trial judge never passes up a chance to embarrass attorneys in front of the jury, what message will this convey?  Will it enhance the reputation of the judge or our legal system?  Of course not, and you can bet these jurors will share their experiences with all their friends and neighbors.
On the other hand, if the judge treats the attorneys with respect, then judges will send a strong message that attorneys should also be respected by the jury.  Even better, if, after thanking the jury for their service, the judge were to remind the jury what an important role lawyers play in peaceful dispute resolution, 6 or 12 lay persons might leave with a more favorable impression of lawyers.  Judges require respect from attorneys.  We attorneys deserve it as well… and we will all benefit from its presence.

To improve our standing with the public we must market ourselves.  Lawyers and the legal system have been attacked by some of the slickest media campaigns that can be produced.  From the Readers Digest to Dateline on NBC the public has been fed a steady diet of greedy and unethical lawyers and aberrant jury verdicts.  And what have we done to defend ourselves?  Very little.  Because some of our fellow lawyers use distasteful ads, we have to a large degree refused to use one of the basic tools of good public relations.  Because we are so busy we have not taken the time to let our own clients know when they are obtaining quality and value from us.  Because we are busy, we have not volunteered to speak to civic clubs and schools.