A Matter of Perspective: A Lawyer’s Place in Society

By Michael Serota, ABA Student Lawyer Journal

I hate lawyers,” she said. “All of them?” I replied, in disbelief. “All of them.” This was the breakfast conversation I was part of on New Year’s Day. While most were still sleeping, I was the unfortunate recipient of one woman’s frustration with both her private attorney and the legal system, which stemmed from an ongoing family dispute over her parents’ estate.

As a third-year law student at Berkeley Law School, and a future member of the legal profession, I attempted to point out that all lawyers do not deserve her fervent hatred, and that even the lawyers involved in her own dispute might very well be doing the best they could. She stood unwavering, however, issuing an across-the-board indictment of the entire profession based only on her personal experience dealing with one lawyer on a highly emotional issue.

This was one of many conversations I have had in the last year regarding the lawyer’s place in society, and I have yet to even become a member of the bar. It seems that my excitement about the law and my optimism for the next generation of lawyers makes me an easy target for those who seek to disparage the legal profession. As I found out on New Year’s Day, the number of people disgruntled with my chosen profession only continues to grow.

Sometimes it seems inevitable that lawyers will be held in disrepute as long as the media continues to reduce the legal profession to its simplistic caricatures: the greedy partner at the top law firm in the flashy car; the rough-and-tumble district attorney; the seedy criminal defense attorney. However, my own experience has shown that individuals who take a few moments out of their days to try to understand the work that lawyers do come to see the much more nuanced role that lawyers play in our society.

Last semester, I participated in Berkeley Law School’s Juvenile Hall Outreach Program, in which groups of law students travel to the nearby Alameda County Juvenile Hall to teach young men in lock-up about their constitutional rights. During our first session, my group of 13- to 18-year-old men unsurprisingly had little to say regarding the utility of the legal profession as a whole, or of their own attorneys. It was revealing to see, though, that when these same young men were asked to role-play as the judge and opposing counsel in hypothetical criminal cases, their attitudes toward the legal profession changed.

When pushed to make arguments for and against a finding of guilt in each scenario, or to justify their inal case holding, the students recognized the competing concerns of the criminal justice system and how difficult it is to ensure fairness to all parties involved. In fact, some of the students were far more sympathetic to the role of the prosecutor than to that of the defense attorney, and many made strong arguments in favor of public safety, punishment, and deterrence. In a very short period of time, and in one simple exercise, the students walked away with a deeper understanding of the complexities inherent in our legal system and with a greater respect for the legal profession.

I took two main points away from this exercise. First, many nonlawyers, especially those caught in the midst of a legal dispute, fail to appreciate the complexities and the competing interests that must be balanced to constitute a just legal system. When individuals are embroiled in litigation or in a criminal prosecution, it is easy for them to become consumed by their vested interests and by the strong emotions involved. Regardless of the outcome, many walk away feeling slighted, and lawyers are easy targets for this frustration.

Second, as individuals, we have the tendency to allow one bad personal experience, the experiences of people we know, and media portrayals to constitute our entire worldview. This is undoubtedly how my New Year’s Day friend’s fervent hatred of all lawyers developed, resting on an erroneous assumption that her experience with one attorney in a contentious family dispute should translate to anyone with a law degree.

It is clear that poor individual experiences with lawyers, and the media’s tendency to portray the legal profession simplistically and negatively, will not disappear in the near future. Neither will the human tendency to stereotype and generalize. But through educating individuals about the complexities and competing interests involved in our legal system, I believe that the societal tone might slowly shift.

There is great value in pushing people to understand that which they criticize. Whether or not people think favorably of the legal profession, my experiences have shown that both adolescents and adults can use role playing to help them appreciate how difficult it is to balance the spectrum of interests that make up a legal dispute. The more individuals see the world through the eyes of the lawyer, the more they will be able to appreciate the challenges inherent in the job, and the more they will respect the legal profession.

This May, thousands of law students will graduate from law school and embark upon their legal careers. Graduation will be a bittersweet event, combining the excitement of entering a profession filled with possibility, with the unfortunate reality of being viewed by society through lawyer stereotypes. Until this changes, my advice is to make sure to bring the Socratic Method to holiday parties.

Michael Serota is a third-year student at University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.