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On the Popular Image of the Lawyer: Reflections in a Dark Glass, 75 CALIFORNIA LAW REVIEW 379 (1987).


The most striking aspect of the image of the lawyer in popular culture is the intense hostility with which it is invested. Lawyers, to be sure, may have more than their fair share of common moral shortcomings. But they do not as individuals seem so very different from the rest of the population as to justify the special level of animosity that the profession seems to arouse in the general public.

The question, then, is what accounts for this pervasive and intense hostility. A recent poll conducted by The National Law Journal asked people what most closely represented their view of the most negative aspect of lawyers. By far the largest proportion, 32%, disapproved of lawyers because "[t]hey are too interested in money." While that may well (for all I know) be a correct characterization of lawyers, it is hardly a unique one: Avarice does not seem to distinguish lawyers from businessmen or architects or doctors. But the second and third reasons for thinking ill of lawyers were different. They were that lawyers "manipulate the legal system without any concern for right or wrong" (22%), and that they "file too many unnecessary lawsuits" (20%).

These are reasons to dislike lawyers that are specific to the legal profession. What is fascinating about these reasons, however, is that when The National Law Journal asked the public what were the most positive aspects of lawyers, far and away the most popular responses were that their "first priority is to their clients" (38%), and that they "know how to cut through bureaucratic red tape" (31%). In other words, lawyers are applauded for following their clients' wishes and bending the rules to satisfy those wishes; and they are at the very same time condemned for using the legal system to satisfy their clients' desires by bringing lawsuits at their clients' behest and using the legal system to get what their clients want, rather than to uphold the right and denounce the wrong.

Lawyers, it seems, can't win for trying. They are simultaneously praised and blamed for the very same actions. If The National Law Journal's poll is to be credited, popular attitudes toward lawyers are profoundly contradictory. Often, however, such contradictions are fault lines leading right to the heart of a culture's vision.

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