Lawyers have a terrible image, but they're trying to improve it

Seymour B. Stern

September 24, 1990|By Seymour B. Stern

LEE IACOCCA once noted that American industries have an inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with the Japanese. American lawyers seem to suffer from a similar ailment: a preoccupation with their good public image, or more appropriately, their lack thereof.

Lawyers constantly ask themselves why they are so disliked. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Irving R. Kaufman once tried to explain that lawyers are distrusted because the public fails to understand the benefits that lawyers produce.

Judge Kaufman pointed out that lawyers encounter society's most complex economic problems, its thorniest social and political issues and its thousands of criminals, vicSeymour B.Sterntims and disputants. He observed that lawyers must attempt to bring order and discipline to the chaos of human affairs, but that they also have a superior opportunity to do good in a world of contentious human beings.

Achieving a good public image is difficult for lawyers, since they frequently deal with people at the lowest point in their lives -- death, divorce, failed businesses. Let's face it, this society is over-lawyered, and lawyers do not produce anything that the public wears, drives, lives in or (for the most part) really wants.

It is nonsense, however, to believe that the legal profession is the sole blame for the proliferation of law, lawyers and lawsuits, as well as for a certain mean-spiritedness in American society. We live in a society in which winning and the bottom line have become everything. Many Americans truly believe in Gordon Gecko's credo, "greed works."

There is no doubt that some lawyers have contributed to this state of affairs, many in a highly visible fashion. But in its mistaken belief that the judicial system can solve all of life's problems, our society has created so many rules, regulations, laws and controls that lawyers have become an indispensable part of virtually any activity in which we engage. Lawyers are expected (and sometimes expect) to cure problems that lawyers, judges and the entire judicial system, frankly, cannot even begin to address adequately.

There are, however, some bright signs. Greed did not work on Wall Street, as evidenced by the Boesky and Milken scandals and the recent collapse of Drexel, Burnham, Lambert. Greed has not worked for some law firms both locally and throughout the country.

That does not mean a return to the "good old days," particularly for lawyers. The days of the small, non-descript, general practice attorney will continue to disappear, as large national and regional firms increasingly come to dominate the profession. At the same time, lawyers -- like other business people -- must grapple with the need to increase the value of their services. The lawyers of the future will have to better manage their businesses, be more specialized and use technology to a greater extent than it is being used today.

But the business of law need not replace the profession of law. The drive during the past 30 years to make lawyers behave more like business people has awakened many attorneys who believe that law is a profession which can be practiced efficiently in order to be profitable, without losing the ideals of professionalism.

To ensure professionalism, however, Maryland must initiate a program on professional standards and legal guidelines, to be taken by all attorneys prior to their admission to the bar. Such a program, in conjunction with the existing law school courses on ethics, will provide a foundation on which to build a better understanding of what is expected of lawyers.

By no means, however, will such a program restore professionalism. It isn't just young people who have caused problems with the practice of law, but also many older attorneys who have allowed the deterioration of standards set by their mentors. Ultimately, such a program of professionalism must extend to all members of the bar.

Maryland attorneys must also embrace a new program which provides them with a tremendous opportunity not only to enhance their public image, but also to do something constructive. That program, initiated by the Maryland State Bar Association, and the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, will attempt something which has never been tried before -- a partnership between the state's doctors and lawyers. Through the program, to be announced tomorrow, lawyer/doctor teams will visit middle schools in Maryland to explain the effects of alcohol and drug abuse from both a medical and legal standpoint.

The association has no misconceptions that such a program will put a stop to drug and alcohol abuse. It will not. But lawyers have an unenviable vantage point in seeing the awful effects of this abuse on the entire judicial system. Something must be done, and done now, to educate the next generation about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol before they, too, become addicted.

Lawyers have complained for years about the poor quality of the practice of law, the lack of respect accorded the profession and the general state of society. Now is the time to do something about it. And it is lawyers who are in an excellent position to make the needed changes to improve their image and our society as a whole.

Seymour B. Stern, a partner at the Frank, Bernstein, Conaway & Goldman, is president of the Maryland State Bar Association.

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