Why People Hate Lawyers: Getting Beyond The Stereotypes

We’ve all heard the jokes:

Q: What is black and brown and looks good on a lawyer?  A: A doberman.

A client who felt his legal bill was too high asked his lawyer to itemize costs. The statement included this item: ”Was walking down the street and saw you on the other side. Walked to the corner to cross at the light, crossed the street and walked quickly to catch up with you. Got close and saw it wasn’t you. -$50.00.”

A reporter outside of a courtroom asked a defendant clad only in a barrel: “Oh, I see your attorney lost the case!” The defendant answered, “No, we won.”

Q: When lawyers die, why don’t vultures eat them?   A. Professional courtesy.

I know. Ha. Ha.

But clichés and bad jokes come with a kernel of truth. There is a reason people hate lawyers. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

So if you don’t want to be the butt of the joke, ask yourself if you fit any of these “bad lawyer” stereotypes:

1. The Rich Lawyer. Oh how people hate us BMW-driving, billable-hour chasing, money grubbing lawyers. But most of the lawyers I know who drive fancy cars or live in big houses fit into two camps: 1. the lawyer who has paid her dues and really can afford a little luxury; and 2. the lawyer living beyond his means. The first one, well, they earned it. We may all aspire to be this kind of lawyer – one who has worked hard, served their clients well and can genuinely afford the Beemer. But too many of us are pretenders, faking it before we make it and chasing after the big bucks so we can pay the bills. Be who you are, and quit chasing money as the be-all/end-all of our profession, and you may earn enough respect to eventually become what you aspire to.

2. The Ambulance Chaser. Yes, we all have to make it rain. Clients don’t find us by themselves – we have to go get ‘em. But if you are so desperate for clients that you will take any case that comes your way, even if you have to wait all night in the ER, you my friend are an ambulance chaser. Work on building a referral network and do a great job for your existing clients and watch your business grow. And remember, you don’t have to take every case that you come across. Just take the ones where there are genuine issues to litigate or a real need to be served.

3. The Unethical Lawyer. We’ve all met lawyers who think that the rules don’t apply to them. They seem to get away with murder while the rest of us fret over every detail, so afraid of a bar grievance it is a miracle we are willing to give advice at all. Don’t be “that guy.” Because while most of us never get a bar grievance in our lawyering lives, if you don’t respect the rules that govern our profession, it will catch up to you.

4. The Stupid Lawyer. I honestly have never met a genuinely stupid lawyer, but I have heard rumors. Lawyers who never update their forms, never research issues for their clients and genuinely remain ignorant of the law as they continue to practice. That just won’t do. Stay on top of the legal issues in your practice areas, and keep current on technology and business practices. Then you won’t be just another stupid lawyer.

5. The 24/7 Lawyer. You know this guy: the lawyer who never goes home, bills 3,000 hours a year and has no life. If this is you, you need a vacation and some friends because you can’t do this forever. Your clients can literally smell the burnout coming out of your pores, and your kids don’t recognize you. My advice? Back away from the Westlaw and get some fresh air.

6. The Bad Lawyer. What can I say about the stereotypical bad lawyer that hasn’t been said in a million lawyer jokes? He doesn’t follow rules of procedure, takes on new practice areas like he is buying cheap suits, and forgets to call or email clients to keep them up-to-date on the status of their cases. They miss filing deadlines and keep a sloppy calendar. If you suspect this is you, I encourage you to do ANYTHING but practice law.

7. The TV Lawyer. You know who you are. There is nothing wrong per se with advertising your services at bus stops, on billboards or even on TV. The guy I’m talking to is the one who runs a mill. Clients never actually meet their attorney unless they see them in court once in a while. They have a cadré of associates cranking out the billable hours, while paralegals and “case managers” actually meet with clients. And the guy whose face is on the billboard waving cash at passing drivers? He’s too busy running a business to practice law. Don’t be this guy. Refuse to work in his mill.

8. The Pitbull. Typically, this kind of lawyer is the butt of divorce jokes. But any kind of litigator will fit the bill if she is overly aggressive and does not respect the decorum of the courtroom. There is no need to be a pit bull; you can zealously represent your client without resorting to being nasty. Just tone it down, follow the rules of professional conduct and put the “civil” back in litigation.

9. The Good Ol’ Boy. “A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.” If you think that the good old boys’ network you and your daddy and your daddy’s daddy practiced law with will get you by, think again. There is a glut of new lawyers coming out of law school every year, and most of them are women. When I was at Big Law, I knew the beginning of the end of the Good Ol’ Boy was there when the son of one of the most respected lawyers in town got laid off. The times they are a-changing, and you’d better get with the program.

10. The Ghost. You can’t reach this lawyer by phone, cell or email. They are completely, utterly inaccessible once they take your case on. You will never know the status of your case. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. If you are one of these elusive creatures, take this as your wake up call: you will be grieved.

William Shakespeare famously wrote: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Henry IV, Act IV, Scene 3, one of the earliest recorded lawyer jokes. In context? These are instructions for seeding anarchy. Lawyers are supposed to be bastions of a civilized nation, ensuring justice for the people we serve. Most of us actually try to be that kind of lawyer. But not all of us.

If lawyers are ever going to stop being the butt of jokes, we need to stop acting like jokers.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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