Dec 23, 2009

The Lawyer You Want to Be, the Lawyer You Are, and What People Think About You

Gallup has released its annual poll on the honesty and ethics of professions, and the results, as always, are interesting.

Readers will be shocked-- shocked!-- to learn that lawyers are not among the five professions rated most highly for honesty and ethics. Nurses, pharmacists, doctors, police officers, and engineers (engineers, seriously?) hold down the top five. Bankers, by the way, formerly a contender for the top five, have taken a serious hit for the third year in a row. (This year, only 19% of respondents rated the "honesty and ethical standards" of bankers "high" or "very high," but I digress).

Lawyers stayed out of the bottom five again, this time with some help from the dismal opinions folks apparently now have for Congressmen and Senators (only a 10% "high/very high" rating on honesty and ethics v. a 53% "low/very low.") This year, a mere 13% of those surveyed rated lawyers' honesty and ethics "high or very high." This is pretty discouraging, to put it mildly, and to make matters worse, 40% ranked our honesty and ethics "low or very low," with 45% ranking us "average."

Of course this is troubling and discouraging. But the perceptions haven't really changed much in the last 300 years, and I'm pretty confident, due to the nature of what lawyers do and to the state of the postmodern mind, that it won't be changing much in the foreseeable future.

Ranking lawyers' honesty and ethics is a strange business: most people have a pretty low opinion of the profession, but they appreciate and approve of their own lawyers and their friends who are lawyers. In addition, I wonder where all this low opinion is when it is time to select board members, elect presidents, choose mayors, and appoint CEOs. As Abraham Lincoln put it 160 years ago:

There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal.

Lincoln's eloquent conclusion to these remarks is also worth hearing (plus it reminds me of another interest post to talk about):

Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief -- resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

Regardless of public opinion about the profession, it is almost always as individual lawyers that we love our neighbors-- or not-- in and through the law. Yet it is individual lawyers, of course, who do and say the things that bring disrepute on our profession. There is something in the nature of the lawyers work-- advocacy, particularly-- that makes folks squeamish.

That's not all, though. There is something in the temperament of the typical lawyer that, when left unchecked, turns monstrous. Or more likely it's a combination of temperament and the standard pragmatic instrumentalism of law school. But whatever it is, it changes-- or at least influences-- us. It's what prompts the Abraham Lincolns of the world to say "if you can't be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer."

And this leads us to a wonderful post over at my new favorite, Lawyerist, entitled "What Kind of Lawyer Do You Really Want to Be?" Here's how it begins:

Have you ever found yourself wondering who you have become?

This happened to one lawyer last year after he found himself pumping his fist with excitement after serving interrogatories to opposing counsel and realizing they would be due right after Christmas. In that moment, he caught himself and realized he had become someone who was excited to ruin another person’s Christmas. He had become someone he never wanted to be.

His days were filled with conflict, and he was paid to make life worse for people, not better. His personality was dominated by anger, his family was suffering, and his practice was suffering too. He began to sabotage his firm because he simply did not believe in what he was doing any longer.

This is not true of most lawyers. But it is true often enough to make it worth addressing. The Lawyerist post has some good suggestions, and I'd be interested in yours.

HT on the Gallup poll: The Brauch Brief.


  1. Hi Michael,
    I found your blog off of the Regent site, since hearing of it from being an American Center for Law and Justice enthusiast. Consenting on being a knave (based on Lincoln's second listing within your post) is where I'm at in my consideration of Regent. As a 30-something year old Christian interested in considering studying as an honest, Christian lawyer, your comments struck a chord. My largest paper in undergrad. college (round about 30 pp.) so happened to be on legal writing within the technical writing field (my BA is in English--pro / tech writing). Since info design did not take off as a career path for me, again, I was daydreaming over Regent. I think and read very "lawyer-like." For now, I've been writing my own blog ( as a for-fun pasttime, also wondering what my God-called vocation is yet to become.

  2. Thanks for checking in on the comment board, Christopher! May the Lord direct you in your journey regarding law and law school.

    I always like to hear what prospective students are thinking about the law and law school, so keep in touch!