Wednesday, February 10, 2016
“Kill All the Lawyers”
Shakespeare, Henry VI
According to the American Bar Association (I’m an active member, by the way) Journal (January 20th), “In the mid-19th century, nearly 80 percent of members of Congress were lawyers... The percentage fell to less than 60 percent in the 1960s and less than 40 percent in 2015.” Given the general proclivity of folks whose brush with the legal community is negative – visions of high fees, indecipherable laws and procedures, imperious and mean-spirited practitioners and judges and a feeling of manipulation and helplessness – this may well seem like a good thing. Folks more like us, perhaps? Medical doctors, businessmen and women, farmers, etc.… but mostly a new class of lifetime-driven professional politicians.
But when you understand that this body of elected representatives is primarily charged with proposing, reviewing and passing laws within the confines of the Constitution, in a world of statutory and regulatory complexity, perhaps being comfortable with legal structures and language and the interpretation of what the limits really are might actually be useful. In my world, great lawyers are exceptional translators: explaining what that complexity means to people without the expertise to understand it, and taking their needs and wants into the legal world for implementation, enforcement and protection.
Like most professions, there are both caring and competent lawyers and those who simply know how to manipulate the system to milk it for all it’s worth. For those who love the law, care about people, and apply their skills to making the world better, they have a lot to contribute and are proud of their legal training and practice. They are less likely to embrace slogans that directly contradict the constitution or are likely to be crushed by the courts at great expense to taxpayers. Sometimes anyway. But our journalist compatriots get more mileage out of “lawyers behaving badly” than stories about good lawyers prioritizing supporting benefits to society.
Bottom line, being a lawyer seems to carry a negative connotation to most Americans these days. “Donald Trump brands himself a businessman. Ben Carson evokes his work as a neurosurgeon. John Kasich and Jeb Bush extol their records as governors, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio praise their actions in the Senate… But you rarely hear a political candidate refer to himself or herself a ‘lawyer.’
“Those who are actually lawyers – like Chris Christie or Ted Cruz – prefer to use a more specific job title, like ‘prosecutor’ or ‘solicitor general,’ when discussing their resume. According to 2013 poll by Pew Research Center, about a third of Americans said that lawyers contributed little or nothing to society -- the worst results of any profession surveyed. So when the term does pop up in political campaigns, ‘lawyer’ is usually a slur slung by an opponent.
“Yet American politics is actually full of lawyers. New research that looks at more than 200 years of historical data by Nick Robinson, a lecturer in law at Yale, shows that lawyers have had an impressive influence on politics. In total, more than half of all presidents, vice presidents and members of Congress in U.S. history had a background in law…
“When Alexis de Toqueville, the French thinker who captured an iconic portrait of early America, visited the U.S. in the early 19th Century, he described lawyers as a kind of political aristocracy. ‘In America there are no nobles or men of letters and the people is apt to mistrust the wealthy; lawyers consequently form the highest political class,’ he wrote.” Washington Post, January 19th, which also presented the chart above.
Today, people are more likely to view lawyers as an unnecessary “transaction tax,” over-paid and earning money over the misery of others. Not a pretty picture, even as over half of recent-years’ student-loan-laden law school grads cannot find work in their chosen profession, law school applications have plummeted to the lowest levels in recent memory, and even “big law” is shuddering as clients pull in the reins.
But when I see recent political positions that are as un-constitutional and un-American as ever in our history, the further reduction in a belief in the legal profession is deeply disappointing. Perhaps this trend is less about lawyers, however; perhaps is a part of the overall growing disenchantment with government in general, the institutions that support it and particularly with our system of justice, civil and criminal. It is important to read these tea leaves within the overall content of contemporary American politics. Ask yourself, for example, if the new majority of non-lawyers in Congress are doing better than the older Congressional delegations where lawyers actually were the majority. Yeah, exactly! They do not know how to negotiate, compromise and accomplish what they pledged to do.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if the lessening of general support for the institutions that underlie our very form of government continues to accelerate, we won’t have that form of government much longer.