Lawyers Will Be a Joke Until They Clean Up Act

<i> Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, is the author of a new book, "Taking Liberties" (Contemporary Books)</i>

The other day, while on vacation, I was browsing through one of those shops that specialize in cute toys and gimmicks. A small crowd was gathering around one set of items called “custom voodoo dolls.” The set consisted of the usual objects of derision: mother-in-law, ex-wife, ex-husband, boss, lawyer.

Naturally I bought the lawyer, figuring that I could have some fun putting a few pins in particularly painful places while fantasizing about several attorneys whom I have encountered who deserve no less. When I took my lawyer voodoo doll to the checkout counter, the saleswoman laughed and said, “That’s all anybody is buying--the lawyers sell like mad.”

Everyone seems to want to stick it to lawyers. We are the butt of bad jokes and the object of literary derision.


Here are a few examples of lawyers taking it on the chin in humor. Ronald Reagan once told this one to Ed Meese: “Do you know why they’re now using lawyers instead of white mice for experimentation? First, there are more of them; second, there is no danger that the experimenter will get to like them; third, there are certain things mice won’t do.”

Another is the new definition of waste: a busload of lawyers going off a cliff with two empty seats.

Then there is the one about the lawyer, the doctor and the priest who were shipwrecked near an island. When the doctor and the priest tried to swim to shore, the sharks frightened them back to the wreck. But when the lawyer jumped, the sharks escorted him to the island. The priest asked why the sharks treated the lawyer so well, and the doctor responded, “It must be professional courtesy.”

Finally, I was recently told about the holy man who had devoted his life to prayer and the Lord’s work. When he got to heaven, he was assigned to a tiny house on a small cloud. One day he saw a fat, prosperous angel drift past in a mansion on an enormous cloud, and he asked the Lord about the man. The Lord said that he was a lawyer. The holy man complained gently about his own comparatively shabby treatment, and the Lord responded: “You see, we have many holy men here in heaven, but he’s our only lawyer.”

We are all familiar with Shakespeare’s line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” and with Dickens’ characterization of law as “a ass--a idiot.” But how many of us know that in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia “they have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters”?

Why are lawyers thought of so badly? Why are we found near the bottom of every public-opinion ranking of occupations? The answer is simple: Because we deserve it. It is not clear whether lawyers do more good than harm. The vast majority of lawyers’ time--especially that of the super-elite lawyers, the ones whom I help train at Harvard--is devoted to helping the super-rich get even richer and to pay less in taxes.


This dedication to the rights of the wealthy certainly helps the 1% of the population served by these corporate lawyers. But there is a real question as to whether it helps or hurts the rest of us.

The profession of law is, after all, a monopoly. Only licensed members of the Bar can sell legal advice and representation. Generally when the state gives someone a license to engage in a monopoly it demands something in return: The monopolist must service all of the people, not just a tiny fraction. And this makes sense. If most of those who need legal services are not being served by those who have the exclusive right to practice law, then others--unlicensed paralegals--should be able to compete and provide legal advice and representation to those who are now being excluded.

Something must be done to bring legal services to the people who need them the most--working people, welfare mothers, the handicapped, immigrants, the aged. These are people with rights but no realistic remedies.

The Reagan Administration has cut back on publicly financed legal aid. Some large law firms, to their belated credit, are helping a bit. But the situation is still critical. It is as if the emergency wards of our hospitals were going unattended while most of our doctors were performing cosmetic surgery.

Cynics may respond that the last thing we need is more people represented by lawyers. This reminds me of the small town that had no lawyer, and so the people invited one to set up practice. He did, but there was no business. As he was about to leave, another lawyer moved into town. Suddenly there was more than enough business for both.

Lawyers are a contentious lot. Sometimes we create, or at least discover, problems. We operate on the adversary system. We are not supposed to win popularity contests. But in a society full of injustice we are a necessary evil. It is not enough to poke pins into voodoo-doll lawyers, or to make jokes at our expense. Something must be done to bring the benefits of our legal system to all people.