Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Some Thoughts about Citizen Lawyers

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Some Thoughts about Citizen Lawyers

Article excerpt

In his letter inviting people to this conference on the "citizen lawyer," Professor James E. Moliterno stated frankly that this term, "citizen lawyer," had no fixed meaning. The phrase could refer, he said, to the lawyer in public service. (1) It could refer to private lawyers who work in the public interest (not an easy term to define). (2) Or, in the "broadest view," one might say that "all lawyers are citizen lawyers" since they have a "critical role in the justice system or the economic life of the country."

It seems clear that, under the first two views, most lawyers, past and present, have not been citizen lawyers at all. Whether there are fewer "citizen lawyers" now than before is hard to say, because of difficult or impossible problems of measurement. Personally, I doubt that there has been any serious falling off. Clearly, lawyers who work for the government have always been a small minority. There are more of them today than ever before, for an obvious reason: government is bigger than it ever was. (3) Whether all lawyers who work for the government are "citizen lawyers" is another question. It is hard to say why a lawyer who handles tort claims against the government is in any way performing a nobler task than the lawyer who handles tort claims against a pharmaceutical company.

"Public interest lawyers" in the sense that the term is used today hardly existed before the twentieth century. Of course, there were lawyers who volunteered to help out the poor and the downtrodden. How many of this sort ever flourished is not something we have the figures to document. In any event, the vast majority of lawyers, now and then, have always been, frankly, out to make a buck. In a free enterprise system, this is nothing shameful.

In the third, or broadest sense, I think the situation is more complex, and the questions about citizen lawyers harder to answer. It is pretty clear that the legal profession does have a critical role in the justice system and in the economic life of the country. There are a number of ways in which this is true. Some of them are very obvious. Only lawyers have the right to represent clients in court. Without lawyers, the "justice system" as we know it would not exist. People accused of a crime, or who find themselves on either end of a personal injury claim, could hardly get a fair shake without the help of a lawyer. And the masses of business lawyers must make some impact on "economic life." Indeed, for many businesses, lawyers are quite indispensable; the company could hardly run without them. But other lawyer roles in society are somewhat less obvious. (4) In this brief Article, I want to say a few words about these less obvious roles.

Throughout this Article, I deliberately use the term "legal profession" rather than "all lawyers." What is important is the role of the legal profession as a whole, (5) especially considering that there are always exceptions to any general statement. Some individual lawyers have played a negative role--in the economy, in the system of justice, in society in general. It would be pointless to deny this. Some lawyers have been out-and-out scoundrels, cheats, or thieves; others have even been the occasional murderer-lawyer. A fairly large number, in the past and in the present, have been simply incompetent. And plenty of lawyers have been so grasping and greedy, so intent on where the next dollar is coming from, that it would be absurd to classify them as "citizen lawyers," no matter how one stretched the term.

The really bad lawyers are (I hope) exceptions. Not that lawyers as a class have any special virtues as human beings--almost all occupations are useful to society in one way or another, including accountants, maintenance people, saxophone players, and hairdressers. The people who do these things have no special gift of goodness; they are just people, like everybody else. Their virtue, such as it is, derives from the fact that they do quite useful things. …

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