November 6, 2014

Seven myths about lawyers, knocked for six

Image: Shutterstock


What do the general public think of lawyers? Here, we look at seven of the most common misperceptions of the profession and attempt to blow them apart.

1. We all know all the law, all the time

We’ve all been there.  You meet a person for the first time, tell them you’re a lawyer and then POW! A torrent of questions are unleashed. ‘I’ve got this restrictive covenant on my property… I’m thinking of claiming for whiplash… where does the law stand on the exploitation of other planets’?

It is irrelevant that you are a derivatives lawyer and haven’t looked at a real estate text book since the LPC. Never mind that you haven’t thought about the Offences Against the Person Act since 2008. You have the title so you should know the law, all the law, whatever the topic or jurisdiction.

You could politely explain that you actually specialise in Welsh housing law so haven’t a clue about the Texas penal code – or you could do what us lawyers do best, and blag it. Nod gravely, spout some Latin (although see 5 below) and promise a follow-up email. As soon as you mention the invoice you’ll be sending, you’ll be surprised how quickly the questions cease.

2. We spend all our time in court

‘You’re a lawyer? You must be great at public speaking!’

Erm, no. Frankly, a lot of us never set foot in a courtroom and we certainly don’t deal with ‘cases’, unless they’re of the luggage variety. You may have visited the High Court to file applications as a trainee, but this does not mean you have any idea what you’re supposed to call the judge.

Even actual litigation lawyers spend very little time in court these days, but mediation, arbitration and out-of-court settlements just aren’t sexy enough for the public image of a lawyer.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this myth is to embrace it.  Let us live up to the public expectation of what a lawyer looks like, donning the itchy wig and black gown to sit at our desks for some hard core drafting.

3. We all chase ambulances

Unfortunately for the majority of us, aggressively advertised personal injury firms have led to a mistaken belief among some of the population that we’re all blood sucking vampires. We prey on those who are vulnerable or greedy – so the rhetoric goes – going on to take large cuts of any damages paid out in fees. Opportunistic lawyers who persuade clients to sue easy targets, costing the NHS, local governments and other public bodies millions, as well as bumping car insurance premiums up.

Well, no. Most of us don’t deal with personal injury cases and as for chasing ambulances, most of our work comes from repeat custom, not from in-your-face marketing campaigns.

Even those of us who are personal injury lawyers are often doing good work and should be commended, not criticised, for it. Let us not forget the basic principle behind personal injury law: to help those who have suffered loss due to another’s negligence recover compensation. In many cases, a financial payout is little recompense for what has been lost.

In any event, our so-called compensation culture is hardly spiralling out of control, despite hysterical media claims to the contrary. Claims for work-related injuries and diseases fell sixty percent over the last decade and of 221,000 cases of work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2012, just 293 resulted in a payout.

Excuse the rant – but this myth damages us all. Besides, ambulance chasing? In these heels? I don’t think so, darling.

4. We all live the fast life

The reputation may be boozy lunches, offices littered with crates of champagne and drug-fuelled parties but, in reality, the average lawyer has about as much in common with The Wolf of Wall Street as your pizza delivery guy does with Tony Soprano.

Long hours, pressure to hit billing targets and recession-slashed hospitality budgets mean that a few pints at All Bar One is as wild as it gets for many of us. Sure, there are one or two memorable nights every year, when THAT litigator ends up with THAT secretary and the PSL spends the night asleep under her desk, but what office doesn’t have nights like that?

5. We all speak Latin

Ceteris paribus. Habeas corpus. In loco parentis. Caecilius est in horto.

These days, we can get by in the legal world knowing virtually no Latin at all. One partner at a well known firm bawls people out of his office if they try and use the archaic language, complaining that they’re just showing off. The Plain English campaign tries to encourage clearer, more concise communication and Latin phrases certainly don’t fit this bill.

Saying that, knowing one or two phrases can come in useful, not least to put the other side on the backfoot.  After all, cuius est solum eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos.

6. We’re all rich

Sure, some of us will be lucky enough to end up as an equity partner of a Magic Circle firm but the vast majority of us work for far smaller organisations. In fact, chief executives, brokers, marketing directors, airline pilots and financial managers all earn more, on average, than lawyers.

Although we can hardly complain that we’re underpaid, bear in mind those poor trainees who, from 1 August 2014, could be paid as little as £6.50 per hour – the minimum wage.

7. We’re all liars

Honest, guv’, we can’t tell a lie. Seriously, we can’t.

Bound by the Code of Conduct, solicitors in England and Wales have a duty not to deceive the court.  The law is there to uphold, and we are its servants.  So, contrary to popular opinion, lawyers are not liars.

We’re sure there are plenty other myths about the profession floating about – perhaps it’s time we confronted them too. LM

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