Why all the Legal-Hate?
Samuel Michaels is the founder of Canada Legal Help. He writes on topics including access to justice, legal service provision, and legal system innovation. Samuel is a J.D. student at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Last week, I took a stab at some of the most fundamental issues with the legal system. My, admittedly cynical, blog piece asked that we shine more light on the flaws of a system with hypocritical and opposing functions, operations, and ideals. However, rereading what I wrote, and diving deeper into some of the issues the piece calls to mind, I find myself now looking at the other side of the coin.
On the one hand, the legal system has many inherent problems. For example, in many cases the same individuals tasked with resolving the system’s flaws are dependent on the existence of a flawed system to justify their positions and salaries in the first place. On the other hand, the legal system, and the lawyers operating within it, have one heck of a bad reputation. I’ve found myself wondering whether this reputation is a result of the flawed system, a cause of it, or a totally unrelated situation.
So why all the Legal-Hate? Well, for one thing, legal-hate is an old game. Shakespeare famously wrote “let’s kill all the lawyers,” and over the centuries many who have read the quote, minus the context, have nodded approvingly at the proposal. To this day, everything from Disney movies to HBO dramas depict lawyers as evil, conniving, and manipulative.
As a new member to the legal community, I find myself wondering if these depictions are accurate. I’ll go as far as to say that many lawyers are pompous, narcissistic, and self-interested. But downright evil? Maybe I’m still yet to meet the worst lawyers, but fortunately, none of the encounters I’ve made so far have been with such distasteful individuals.
In fact, many of the lawyers I’ve met are actually quite the opposite of what Hollywood would have us believe. They are caring, intelligent, and ethical, with a desire to use their positions for socially beneficial purposes. It is true that the legal profession attracts those who want power and authority. But, by the same token, it is equally attractive to those who want to make positive, tangible social change. If I were to wager, I would say the population of downright “evil” lawyers is, at best, only slightly higher than what one would find in any other industry. So where does the reputation come from?
I suppose it can be partially blamed on the bad lawyers, since it rarely takes more than a few people to ruin things for the masses. And part of the blame definitely comes from the issues with the legal system. Statutes are written in complicated jargon, courthouses are confusing to navigate, and legal services are difficult to access. Since lawyers have made themselves responsible for managing the system, it only stands to reason that the reputation of bad lawyers gets even further cemented every time the system is mismanaged.
However, I don’t think this is the whole puzzle. Part of it is the culturally enhanced reputation, part of it is the result of a flawed system, but legal-hate can be blamed on a third culprit as well: legal-helplessness. When the vast majority of people don’t understand the law and don’t feel comfortable interacting with it, negativity festers. When things are going well, it’s largely because the law is working as it’s supposed to, and that involves being unfelt and unnoticed. Individuals typically only interact with the legal system when things are bad. Therefore, often when the law is first felt by someone, it comes with an initial helplessness, as the so-far silent and uninteresting system suddenly becomes a disruptive and all-consuming force.
I believe that when you combine this relationship many individuals have with the law, with the ingrained reputation of lawyers, and the inherent problems in the legal system, you find the root causes for legal-hate. Does that make it more excusable? Less? I’m not quite sure. What I do know, is that every law student should be faced with these tough realities the first day they start school, rather than being left to figure them out for themselves. The legal profession will come a long way once more effort goes into acknowledging problems such as legal-hate, and finding solutions to its root causes. We’re already seeing many systemic changes under way, hopefully more fundamental ones are coming soon.