Arthur Joel Katz
This is an admission against interest, as lawyers say: I am a graduate of Columbia Law School, I taught at Columbia, I was a law clerk to a federal judge and I spent the three happiest work years of my life practicing law in New York.
I have regretted for the last 52 years that I left the law to go into the motion picture-television business. I did it for the money and I am not glad.
The public perception of lawyers is summed up by the following joke: What do you call the sinking of a ship with five hundred lawyers on board? Answer: a good start. Lawyers constantly get bad press. The medical establishment blames them for malpractice suits that are frequent and often successful. Of course, the medical establishment doesn’t blame mistakes by doctors or hospitals. Maybe, just maybe, that is the cause.
Insurance companies promote the idea that the personal injury bar is nothing but a bunch of ambulance chasers that bring strike suits against innocent drivers who they happen to insure. Maybe. But if you are knocked down by a drunk driver, or even someone who was chatting on a cell phone at the time, you probably will do a lot better if you are represented by a lawyer than relying on the “fairness” of the driver’s insurance company.
The lobbyists for the major corporations do everything possible to protect themselves from their own stockholders’ suits while paying the CEOs and upper management millions in salaries and benefits. Every now and then those awful lawyers manage to reign in the process.
Product liability suits, usually class actions, enrich successful lawyers while sometime getting rather small damages to the individuals who were harmed by the product.
On the other hand, those plaintiffs pay no fees or expenses if there is no recovery and an unsuccessful product liability lawyer who loses a big one can go broke.
That notion, the payment of fees to lawyers, especially large ones, really gets the public’s goat. But there is not much complaint about large payments to doctors, dentists, accountants or stock market manipulators. Did I mention hospitals? My wife was in St. Luke’s for two successive three day periods during which they never found out what was wrong with her. The bill was something over $50,000. We have threatened to hire a lawyer and sue for malpractice, never mind overcharging.
This is not to say that lawyers are all perfect, or that some of them are guilty as publicly charged. And, unhappily, they are not all brilliant. But usually, when someone wants to sue or defend against a suit, his or her lawyer is somehow a knight in shinning armor, the repository of truth and justice.
In criminal cases, the public almost inevitably assumes that the charge is true and the lawyer defending the accused is as bad as he client for taking the side of a criminal.
When you think about it, all this is quite odd. We inherited our legal system, called the Common Law, from England. It has long served us as the defender of our rights as Americans. Among other things, it requires that we be tried by juries of our peers, that one should not be convicted of a crime if there exist a reasonable doubt of his guilty, that even in civil cases must be decided on the basis of law not merely fiat, and, yes, that everyone is entitled to an attorney even, again in criminal cases if the defendant can’t afford one, Consider what the United States might be like if the government could simply jail anyone it chose for any reason. Russia? China? North Korea?
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America should be grateful to its lawyers for many of the rights we enjoy even though they are not included in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The Right of Privacy, for example, was established the by superb lawyers who helped create the right by arguing inferences from the constitution where there was nothing explicit. Thus the government is not supposed to snoop on us, it is not allowed to peak into our bedrooms and commercial interests may not use our pictures or endorsements without our consent. Equal rights in school and elsewhere is largely the result of lawyers brave enough to take up, at the time, a very unpopular cause.
There are other examples.
One of the most misunderstood aspects of lawyering is the assumption that what a lawyer says on behalf of a client represents his personal views. If, for example, in dealing with a school problem, the school’s solicitor should express the views of school’s administration or board even though he personally may have another view. (I am not talking about the advice he gives to the board publicly or privately.) Similarly, in a criminal case, a lawyer is entitled to maintain the innocence of his client even though he may have doubts. That guilt is to be decided by a jury, not the defendant’s lawyer, and the lawyer should raise every point that tends to create doubt even though he has none. The limit on this is only that a lawyer may not make statements or present testimony that he knows to be false, emphasis “knows.”
Most lawyers rarely appear in court. They advise clients on matters of law, laws which are increasingly more complicated as our society becomes more complex. Many serve as negotiators for their clients, an art for which many are well trained. It is often said that the purpose of law schools is not to teach law, but rather to enable their students to think critically about law; that is, to find the real issues.
That helps explain why it is that lawyers often find success in business.
Some of them even become columnists in their old age.So, be kind to our legal eagles. As is said of ducks, they may be somebody’s mother.