One of the (many) reasons the general public distrusts lawyers is that the public believes that lawyers take advantage of tragic situations in order to make the lawyers wealthier. For example, the 2012 December 14th mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut was a big disaster for all the students and teachers involved. Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including his own mother, before committing suicide. When attorney Irving Pinsky wished to represent a six-year old girl at the shooting for a claim of $100 million, Pinsky began receiving numerous letters, faxes and phone calls regarding Pinsky’s moral character. A few of the messages even contained death threats. I do not believe that attorneys like Pinsky, and the clients they represent, deserve the scorn that members of the public throw at them.
I think some of the bad reputation acquired by attorneys comes from the perception that lawyers are taking advantage of trauma victims. Unfortunately, some of this perception is unavoidable. People only seek legal aid when an aspect of their life becomes awful. Couples seeking a divorce go to family lawyers, people accused of a crime find a criminal defense attorney, and employees who lose their positions seek out employment lawyers to determine if their terminations were legal. The nature of the legal profession means that lawyers will show up when clients have a problem somewhere in their life.
What I find puzzling though, is that attorneys are hated for this and other professions are not. Surgeons, for instance, are only needed when someone has a complication somewhere in their body. Surgeons are not despised for healing their patients, yet attorneys are hated for representing their clients.
Perhaps the cause of loathing for attorneys is the perception that lawyers make money off their clients. This does not make sense to me though. Truth is, not all lawyers make a lot of money. But even if all lawyers were rich, I do not see why that should be a sin particular to the legal profession. Legal advocacy is a job like any other, and lawyers should not be despised for doing their jobs. Surgeons are paid to work for people who are suffering, but surgeons do not receive the contempt of the community. Given that many lawyers work cases pro bono, without payment, and other lawyers work on contingency, it is arguable that a person could obtain legal services easier and cheaper than a surgery.
If money is the issue though, perhaps a possible explanation is the amount of money which could be earned. In the Sandy Hook story, $100 million was demanded. That is a lot of money for a household where the child is lucky to be alive. A few factors should be remembered though. First, the amount of money asked for must be higher than what the client expects or wants because this is the ceiling of what the defendants might have to pay. Second, given that the law requires actual injury before a party can bring a lawsuit, a good chuck of the money awarded will go towards medical expenses like therapy. Third, as mentioned above, the lawyer might get a percentage of the award (the standard is one-third, but this is negotiable). All these factors mean that $100 million is not the amount which will actually be given.
The final point of interest is that lawyers, by advocating for their clients, must assign blame to a particular party. The actual party responsible for the Sandy Hook shooting, Adam Lanza, cannot be brought to justice. Pinsky, the attorney, was attempting to lay the blame for Lanza’s actions on the school district instead. Pinsky argued that Lanza’s actions were foreseeable given that the school lacked a safety plan for students.
The school district found the charge offensive. First, few people could have predicted a twenty-year old man would massacre an elementary school. Second, many of the teachers killed had shielded the children as the children attempted to flee. One injured teacher had pressed a door shut with her body while Lanza shot through the door. Third, Lanza had shot his way through the school’s locked doors, rendering the school’s protections worthless.
Pinsky’s claim was an understandable one though, even if the shooting is emotionally charged. Pinsky’s claim was not that the teachers and staff were uncaring or cowards. Pinsky believed the school should be accountable for the shooting because the school lacked a real response plan, making student injury from many types of disasters foreseeable.
I don’t know if this was true, but given that one of the functions of the judicial system is to uncover the truth, the idea was worth investigating. Sadly, Pinsky has since withdrawn from the case, citing contradictory evidence. I hope other lawyers are not discouraged from representing those in need by the mere notion of unpopularity. The most crucial role that an attorney can take is to speak for those who have no voice.