Lawyer bashing is a phenomenon that continually rears its head into popular culture.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
Whilst I’ve resided to the fact I’m likely to steer from a career in the law (I hold my tongue though), it’s always interested me that people had this general, underlying disdain towards lawyers.
It was a vibe permeating weirdly hostile uni faculty rivalry and interactions with some work clients. Above all – it’s something I saw all over TV.
So I thought I’d try and figure it out.
I mean, all things considering, it’s a prestigious occupation that commands respect and evokes diligence and intelligence.
Yet, it’s the most satirised profession in popular culture. Could it be that the stereotype is deeply imbedded in our psyche?
I decided to seek answers by taking a journey through the portrayal of lawyers over time, from centuries ago to the modern era.
When I started researching, I came across a 17th century tombstone epithet:
God works wonders now and then “here lies a lawyer, an honest man.”
What a juicy jab. I really wish I was capable of that kind of wit and well structured insult.
You know, instead of a ‘yea … well … fuck you man’ which is pretty much the extent of my capability (and again, enough of a reason to steer from a profession practically reliant on strong rebuttals).
That tombstone though – it screams to the world that honesty is an anomaly in the legal profession.
When I found that, I figured it would probably be the oldest roast I could find. But it goes further – Shakespeare himself fixated on lawyers more than any other profession.
Sometimes he subtly took a stab at lawyers:
Suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel and will not tell him of his action of battery?
Sometimes he took a slightly less subtle approach:
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
And what this clearly tells us is that lawyers have been ridiculed since the conception of the legal profession, and that lawyer bashing has evolved into a social pastime.
Unable, or perhaps unwilling to compete with centuries of deep set cultural perceptions, modern media of film and TV have jumped onto this runaway train and ripped the breaks off in the process.
The Simpsons is one of my favourite TV shows ever, and slightly less prestigious than that honour; remains the longest running scripted primetime television series of all time.
The satirical parody of middle class American lifestyle takes a stab at just about every integral part of our lives: family, education, politics, the environment, religion, and of course the most crucial for the purpose of this article – the legal profession.
The show’s take on lawyers is encapsulated in the hilariously dysfunctional character of Lionel Hutz. Even though his offices I Can’t Believe It’s A Law Firm rival the legitimacy of law internships I once diligently scoured for on the internet, Hutz (un)fortunately represents the sleazy and dubious character that embodies the lawyer stereotype.
He is metaphorically (and literally in one of the episodes) an ambulance chasing lawyer.
Don’t get me wrong though, he has the credentials to back up his qualification:
I’ve attended Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, the Sorbonne, the Louvre.
His confidence is something to be admired too, promising a free pizza if he doesn’t settle out of court in thirty minutes (makes me think that maybe we can ease court congestion by chucking a Dominos in Queen’s Square).
Alas, it’s Hutz’s undeniable commitment to legal ethics and understanding of courtroom practice that lets him down.
The state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement but I promise you [one].
I move for a bad court thingy.
This portrayal of lawyers reflects the clear social cynicism that exists towards the profession. Sadly, despite inherently having the best intent in mind, it only takes one ‘law talking guy’ to paint the profession in a bad light. But surely we all think it’s satire? A joke? Surely?
But then again. Take Saul Goodman. For those uninitiated into the Breaking Bad phenomenon, Saul personifies the continually regurgitated lawyer stereotype, corrupt as they come – a shady character that you call when you not only ‘want a criminal lawyer; [but when] you want a criminal lawyer.’
He ticks all the other boxes as well: flashy meets trashy, overconfidence meets narcissism. All fused together and topped with a fancy billboard, late night TV ads and not to mention a catchphrase to match:
A one stop shop for all your legal needs; Better Call Saul!
Breaking Bad writers, with a vice grip on the gristly and unnerving, are smearing lawyer’s reputation like vegemite on toast. And, you know, vegemite tastes like shit to a lot of people.
But to see how popular culture has elevated lawyer bashing into an art form, we cannot skip past the movie industry. Again and again lawyers are portrayed as lying and unscrupulous. If you don’t believe me, here is some evidence (if it pleases the court).
In Liar Liar, Jim Carrey’s character’s capability to be a successful lawyer is threatened because his ability to lie is unwittingly taken from him.
In Rainmaker, Danny De Vito’s character trails through the hospital looking for accident victims, procuring cases by preying on their vulnerability.
Let’s not forget Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. We all know he can’t handle the truth.
How about the consigliere to the Corleone family, attorney Tom Hagen? He is a man who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. And nobody wants to wake up in bed with the head of their favourite horse. Capisce?
I could go on (I swear I have a life by the way).
In Devil’s Advocate, the successful partner in a prominent law firm is literally Satan.
In Jurassic Park, an unpleasant lawyer gets chewed up by a T-Rex. Couldn’t pick a better way for a lawyer to die? After all, the joke goes: What do you call 500 dead lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.
Just when you thought I was done, one last blow. To add salt to the wound, modern media goes a bit further.
In Legally Blonde (I have a sister … which is a terrible excuse hey … I actually just love this movie), Elle’s father legendarily says:
Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious.
The lawyers and law students I know (myself included) may be able to take being called dishonest, greedy – perhaps even the devil incarnate. But ugly? I certainly object!
I guess I cannot completely ignore that there have been portrayals of good lawyers doing good things, just in case the head honchos in the entertainment industry decide they better call Saul and sue me.
Well yes, there have been some, but few and far in between, usually cardboard characters that are difficult to recall. See, I’ve drawn a blank (I’ll settle you with a free pizza if you can think of a memorable handful in 30 minutes).
In parting, as insightful as my ramblings have been, I feel I ought to bestow on you a final gamut of wisdom.
For all my lawyer and law student friends – a thick skin and sense of humour are basic pre requisites when watching TV and movie portrayals of lawyers.
They say that satire is the highest form of flattery. And since no profession has been satirised more, it’s a good thing. Right? At the end of the day what lawyers really want is to help their clients, to do the best for the right outcome.
Keeping this in mind, Ruth Carter, a US lawyer, offers a poignant take on how lawyers should behave: succinctly put in her statement:
Our mantra … should be: Be a legal badass without being an asshole.