|President's Page||The West Virginia Lawyer||February 2000
by Darrell W. (Dan) Ringer
"What are we doing?"
One thing I supplicate your majesty: that you will give orders that no bachelors of law should be allowed to come here [to the Americas]; for not only are they bad themselves, but they make and contrive a thousand iniquities.
Vasco NuŮez de Balboa,
to King Ferdinand V of Spain, 1513
My wife has often said that, on occasion, when a lawyer walks into a room full of lay people itís as if Darth Vader (the Star Wars character) has arrived. Iíve never totally understood what she means, but it certainly causes me to think about the effect of a dramatic entrance.
What I suspect she means is that people who know of us only as lawyers are afraid of us, or at the least are uncomfortable in our presence. They feel, I suppose, like theyíve invited a minister to a bachelor party, or their high school English teacher to dinner.
Recently I was asked if I could go to a local hospital intensive care unit to confer with one of the patients concerning the preparation of a will. Now I can feel the chill that visits the malpractice experts when a question like that is asked. How can an attorney possibly do a competent job under such circumstances? If estate planning (including the preparation of simple wills) is a high risk area of practice, certainly preparing wills for people on their death beds is "asking for it."
Nevertheless, I feel some obligation to help seriously or terminally ill people rest a bit easier. No one wants to plan their estate when theyíre feeling well. Often, it takes a serious illness to help a person decide that "nowís the time." Thatís when I get a call - frequently from a social worker or hospital legal counsel.
The odd thing is that when I get to the hospital, more often than not Iím viewed with suspicion by the hospital employees. They arenít necessarily rude. "Cool" is a better word. They cluster in corners and I hear comments like "There he is," and "What does he want." It is not a warm welcome.
Recently I spoke at some length with the principal of one of the largest high schools in West Virginia. He was very upset. It seems that 35 times a year (his estimate) he has to deal with attorneys who come to his school at the request of parents who are complaining about the way their children have been treated. One of his primary complaints is that a significant number of the lawyers appear at his school for free, without charging the studentís parents. This, he felt, was not fair or reasonable. He said that the lawyers were trying to build a practice at his expense. The complaints were frivolous, he said, and the lawyers should not have been there. He felt they were there to intimidate the school administration. To force a favorable result for the student. They were not present in a real attorney-client role, but as a favor to friends or neighbors. The school system has to pay its attorneys, so the people with whom they deal should have to pay theirs. I admit that I was confused by his complaints, and more than a little concerned.
I was confused because it is the right of each citizen, regardless of age, circumstances, or the merit of their position to have access to our justice system - and that includes the assistance of an attorney. It is just as true in the public schools as elsewhere.
I was also confused about the issue of payment for services. We encourage our lawyers to represent people pro bono or for reduced fees in appropriate matters, and we generally try to remain non-judgmental about the merits of our clientís positions in the investigation phase of the relationship. Iíve always felt that the nature of the compensation for an attorneyís services, so long as the compensation is consistent with our laws and ethical standards, is simply not the business of others.
I was concerned because I suspect my friend the principal wasnít much exaggerating about his belief that at least some of the attorneys came to his school for the purpose of intimidation. We do intimidate people. But there is a price to be paid for such behavior.
We do not all try to intimidate others all of the time, or even some of the time. Many attorneys donít try to intimidate anyone, ever. And some people are much too easily intimidated, even when no one is trying to intimidate them. When lay people (and attorneys, too) are feeling defensive, those that cause them to feel that way are seen as intimidating - even if itís undeserved.
I donít know what we can do to convince others that attorneys are the good guys (and gals). Some things canít be taught, they can only be learned. Such things as another personís intent is learned by observation, and by listening. We form opinions about the motives of others from our experiences. Negative experiences create negative impressions. And negative impressions create negative stereotypes.
Even well intended comments can be misinterpreted. "Donít worry, Iím not really here as an attorney, Iím just doing a neighbor a favor," can translate into "Iím here to make your life miserable, and maybe cost you money, because I like my friend, and donít care much for you." In actuality, if we accompany someone to help them understand whatís happening to them or theirs, we are functioning as attorneys. We should expect that others will react accordingly. After all, our job is to ensure that those in positions of power use that power in accord with the law, or that those seeking something are legally entitled to it. Opinions concerning such matters frequently vary.
Although we sometimes have the luxury of disliking the people on the other side of a matter, in most cases everyone involved is a decent person, entitled to a fair application of the law. It is only natural that we want such people to like us, even when weíre taking exception to what theyíve done or are doing. When they are resentful of our involvement, we frequently try to reassure them that all we want is the truth, or to see that justice is done. But it doesnít help.
Hundredís of years of stereotyping and misinterpreted comments and behavior cannot be easily overcome. If we want to be treated as decent human beings, we have to behave as decent human beings. If we want to be treated as professionals, we have to behave as professionals. There is no room for intimidation. Not that itís an guarantee that weíll be treated well. But maybe weíll be treated with less suspicion, and maybe respect.
Wouldnít it be nice if the presumption was that attorneys seek to achieve fairness, rather than to "contrive a thousand inequities."