Being a lawyer is no laughing matter

Freedom, democracy need lawyers' work

November 18, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Ideas Editor

Lawyers, a large and growing group of Americans who are hated only slightly less than journalists and politicians, got a small boost to their battered egos in recent weeks when the world watched hundreds of their conservatively suited cousins hauled off to jail in Pakistan for challenging the autocratic rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

At a time when everyone has a favorite lawyer joke or two, it was a reminder that lawyers have played a vital role in the fostering of our democracy and social institutions for more than 200 years. The American Revolution was justified on a creative appeal to natural law. The framers of our Constitution created a Supreme Court to mediate disputes between the president and Congress and, most importantly, to defend our rights set forth in the Constitution.

Along the way, Abraham Lincoln, possibly America's greatest lawyer, steered us through a civil war, Maryland's Thurgood Marshall led a battle that brought a legal end to segregation, and First Amendment lawyers defended the media and the public's right to free speech through the Vietnam War and beyond.

Despite all of that, Americans, from Mark Twain to Jay Leno, have long been suspicious of the motives of lawyers, who seem to many to be intent on complicating our lives and taking our money. It doesn't help that lawyers are forced to manage some the most painful passages in life - divorce, bankruptcy, death and the ugly personal and professional disagreements that end in lawsuits.

It's lawyers who defend those accused of heinous crimes and lawyers who stand to protect the rights of minorities in the face of angry majorities. Much of this work is done with little or no compensation. Every time they win or lose a case, lawyers are certain to make someone unhappy.

If all of that weren't enough, there really are some bad lawyers, looking to profit from someone else's adversity or counseling powerful people whose actions they know are legally and ethically questionable. Many lawyers are disgusted by the conduct of some of their professional brothers.

And so, lawyers feel the anger and suffer the jokes. There are many lawyer-joke Web sites, some offering categories as obscure as estate law: "Let's see. Mr. Johnson - rest his soul - did not specify a trustee for his community property," one greedy estate lawyer tells another. "This may work to our advantage in probate court."

In recent days, a broader audience got to laugh at a big-screen lawyer insult in Jerry Steinfeld's Bee Movie when the hero, Barry B. Benson, encounters a mosquito named Mooseblood, who claims to be well suited for a career as a lawyer: "I was already a blood-sucking parasite," he says. "All I needed was the briefcase."

But, truth be told, you don't have to look far these days to find evidence of lawyers behaving in ways that challenge such gibes.

In Pakistan, early this month, Musharraf suspended the constitution, dissolved the Supreme Court and knocked out all independent and international television news channels. Supreme Court judges who refused to declare the general's move legal were placed under house arrest.

In the street demonstrations that followed, 700 or more lawyers were arrested.

Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, chief justice of the Supreme Court, spoke to a meeting of lawyers by cell phone.

"Go to every corner of Pakistan and give the message that this is the time to sacrifice," the Associated Press quoted him as saying. "Don't be afraid. God will help us, and the day will come when you'll see the constitution supreme and no dictatorship for a long time."

And, in Baltimore, two lawyers filed a 400-page report in federal court documenting what they say is failure to provide adequate care for foster children here. The pair - Mitchell Y. Mirviss and Rhonda Lipkin - asked the court to declare the state Department of Human Resources and Baltimore's Department of Social Services in contempt of court for failing to fulfil the terms of a 1988 consent decree that called for rapid reform in foster child care.

Mirviss, one of several Baltimore attorneys who represented foster children here when the class-action lawsuit was filed in 1984, said he believes that in some ways the city's system is in worse shape now than 20 years ago.

In an interview with Sun columnist Jean Marbella, Bill Grimm, another lawyer who works at the National Center for Youth Law and who worked with Mirviss at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau on the initial suit, praised Mirviss, who is now a partner at Venable LLP, and Lipkin, of the Public Justice Center.

"For an urban area not to be able to pull together the resources to support these children - it's inexcusable, " Grimm told Marbella. "Baltimore should be an example for the nation."

Mirviss and Lipkin make a good example of what a Baltimore lawyer can be.

larry.williams@baltsun.com

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