Lawyers Still Inspire Fear and Loathing Aba Study Highlights Image Problem

By Tim Poor Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 15, 1993 | Go to article overview

Lawyers Still Inspire Fear and Loathing Aba Study Highlights Image Problem


Tim Poor Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


In 1963, pollsters told lawyers that they needed to change their ways if they wanted more people to hire them and to think better of their profession.

Thirty years later, the public is using lawyers as never before - and loathing them all the while.

A new survey by the American Bar Association finds that most people think lawyers are greedy and charge too much for their services. Only 22 percent said the phrase "honest and ethical" described the legal profession, and just 8 percent had "great confidence" in law firms.

The statistics are mirrored by pop culture. A lawyer in "Jurassic Park" becomes dinner for a dinosaur, and the audience eats it up. When a lawyer is lassoed in a rodeo on a beer commercial, the crowd howls with satisfaction. Then there are the endless lawyer jokes, many featuring some incarnation of a shark.

Gerald Greiman, a lawyer in Clayton, said he saw the beer commercial for the first time last weekend.

"I laughed - with a great deal of irony," he said, chuckling. "It's kind of funny, but pretty outrageous.

"There are certainly lots of bad lawyers that have warranted the attitude," he said, citing the several lawyers charged in Missouri's Second Injury Fund scandal.

"It's too bad it's mushroomed into an across-the-board cynicism."

Gloria Cotlar, of Clayton, is typical of many who are disaffected with the profession. She says she has been dealing with lawyers for nearly 30 years in both business matters and her divorce.

"They didn't protect me. They did nothing to follow through to protect my interest," she said.

"I just feel they don't care. . . . They are dishonest, they do conflicting things that are damaging to people. All they want is the money."

Like Greiman, most lawyers grumble about the exaggerated image they must endure, while conceding that the image is partly based on reality.

"I don't think lawyers are as lacking in compassion and as greedy as the general public perceives them to be," said Dudley McCarter, the new president of the Missouri Bar, the association that all 20,000 lawyers in the state must join to practice law.

"But we hope to improve, not through public relations gimmicks, but by addressing some of the problems that clearly exist," he said.

McCarter ticks off a list of his recommendations:

Better communication with clients about fees and the way the legal system works.

More donated work.

Tougher enforcement of ethics rules.

These are the same recommendations the Missouri Bar survey made in 1963, when "Perry Mason" was at the height of television popularity.

That survey was done along with Prentice Hall Inc., a legal publisher. It wasn't prompted so much by worry about lawyers' image as by - well, here's how the study's introduction put it:

"It is known that the economic position of the legal profession has not kept pace with that of other professions. . . . A large segment of the general public is failing to utilize professional services for needed legal advice."

Translation: We want more business.

But when the pollsters looked at the public's attitude toward the profession, they found a disturbing trend. The more contact people had with lawyers, the less they thought of them.

While 72 percent of those who had not used a lawyer gave the profession a good rating, the figure dropped to 65 percent among those who had hired one.

The complaints in 1963 included:

"After every nickel he can get."

"Not as ethical as doctors."

"They lie."

"They withhold the truth . . . twist the law around."

So the study recommended that lawyers educate the public more on the need for their services and try to do a better job providing them. …

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