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February 3, 2014
When people ask me what work I do, I tell them I’m a lawyer. Sometimes I may specify that I practice business law and litigation, but I generally expect that the questioner will have a basic understanding of what it is that I do. In fact, the most common response by an inquirer is a either a lawyer joke or a quip about that person’s negative brush with the legal system.
Many lawyers are offended or upset about lawyer jokes. I tend to enjoy the humor, but I also believe we have to do more to expand the message. The public does not always know or appreciate what we contribute to the legal system other than a whole lot of whereas clauses involving parties of the first and second parts. The public also cannot understand why television lawyers can have an initial meeting with a client at the beginning of the hour and finish closing arguments before the last commercial break, yet the only task that seems to be accomplished in that time with a real-world attorney is the signing of a fee agreement (with the retainer check clearing soon thereafter).
The need for better communication of what our profession does was made clear to me years ago by an old college friend, Tami. Tami was putting to bed her pre-school age son, Erik, and he was saying his nightly prayers. Apparently, after saying prayers for the health of various family and friends, Tami mentioned that they should say a prayer for me. I am not a religious person myself, and I don’t know what I did to deserve a prayer, but the following is a transcript of the discussion sent to me by Tami (all of Tami’s sisters are court reporters, so she knows the importance of making a record):
Tami: Oh, and we better pray for Kevin, too.
Erik: Who’s Kevin?
Tami: My friend.
Erik: Is he big or little?
Erik: What does he do?
Tami: He’s a lawyer.
Erik: What’s that?
Tami: He helps people.
Erik: But what does he do? Does he make balloons? (Another big friend of Tami’s apparently makes balloon animals for Erik).
Tami: No, he’s a lawyer and helps people.
Erik: BUT WHAT DOES HE DO?
Tami: He can juggle.
Erik: Oh, God bless Kevin.
This precious anecdote led me to two conclusions. First, evidently my juggling prowess may do more to save my soul than my legal acumen. Second, the bar association needs to make a better effort to explain what attorneys do in a way so that mothers, fathers and three-year-olds can understand.
The communication gap is not limited to communication with the public. I realize we are all busy with other matters and have to concentrate on our day-to-day practices, but how can we respond meaningfully to negative remarks about the bar if we lack the ammunition to launch a defense. It is not enough for a lawyer to argue that he or she is different from the stereotype, because the profession as a collective may still be viewed with contempt. I compare this reaction to the public approval surveys conducted for Congress. The vast majority of people polled disapprove of the performance of Congress as a body, yet a majority of the same individuals approves the individual performance of their elected representatives.
So, if elected President-Elect of the State Bar, my goal on communication will be to improve the information transmitted to both the public and our State Bar members, including writing regular articles that reveal what we lawyers are doing – and possibly how my juggling is progressing.
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