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  • T. W. Emory

A Curious Irony?

Negative remarks and derogatory jokes about lawyers have been “done to death” to where it’s clichéd to even bring it up. And yet, such hackneyed jabs persist because they apparently continue to resonate with people in general, suggesting that the practice of law is one of the most disliked professions, if not the most disliked. And while perhaps not true of all of lawyers, this is probably because many of them seem far more concerned with whether or not something is legal rather than just, and they come across as quite capable of defending whichever side of an argument is paying the freight. At least this is how they’ve been frequently portrayed over the years in popular literature, movies, and television shows.

In my novel, Trouble in Rooster Paradise, I have the private eye protagonist observe about a lawyer and his profession generally: “He was polite enough, but I consider lawyers guilty until proven innocent. So far as I knew he was just another highbrow thimble-rigger in an intellectual shell game, with truth as the pea. Now you see it—now you don’t. Even if they do sink their chops into some meaty issue, truth isn’t usually their objective. I see them as modern wizards who conjure for cash and celebrity.”

A cynical view of lawyers and law systems seems to go back to early times. Take ancient Rome, for example. The Roman philosopher, politician, and lawyer, Cicero (106 BC-43 BC) stated: “The more laws, the less justice.” The leading Roman lyric poet Horace observed: “Lawyers are men who hire out their words and anger.” And, the Roman orator, public official, and historian Tacitus (AD 56-c. 120) noted: “In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous.” The Jews of Palestine during the time of Jesus of Nazareth were under Roman rule, but they were permitted their own monotheistic religion, culture, and law. In the New Testament we read that the law experts or lawyers of Judaism were among the chief opponents of Christ, whose teaching and love ethic they perceived as a threat to their traditions and legalism.

Coming a little closer to modern times, are the comments of the English statesman and social philosopher Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), wittily referred to as either “a foolish wiseman or a wise foolishman.” Though a lawyer himself, More wrote of the Utopians in his well-known book Utopia: “They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters.”

In Henvy VI, William Shakespeare has the villain “Dick the Butcher” say to his fellow-conspirators: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This line itself has fostered its own kind of “lawyerly dispute” as to its actual meaning. Some make the case that Dick said what he did as a backhanded compliment to lawyers as being protectors of society, and as such, the need to get rid of them first since they stood in the way of the rebellion planned by Dick and his pals. However, others argue that the villainous, murderous, and wisecracking Dick was not the sort to praise lawyers, especially in the context in which his words are set. This latter argument seems likeliest to my mind, since several times in his plays, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of disdain and ridicule.

Less than two hundred years after Shakespeare’s day, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s chronicler James Boswell (himself a lawyer) wrote concerning Johnson: “…much enquiry having been made concerning a gentleman, who had quitted a company where Johnson was, and no information being obtained; at last Johnson observed, that ‘he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.’”

English writer and essayist, Charles Lamb wrote: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” As one pundit observed: Lawyers appear in 11 of 15 of Charles Dickens’ novels, and some of them even resemble humans. And, not surprisingly, such cynical, satirical attitudes toward lawyers crossed the sea to America. The renowned polymath, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “God works wonders now and then; Behold! a lawyer, an honest man!” Author and humorist Mark Twain later chimed in: “To succeed in other trades, capacity must be shown; in the law, concealment of it will do.”

Quips and jabs against lawyers continue. Here’s just two I recently came across: “When an attorney gets married, they don’t say ‘I do’—they say, ‘I accept the terms and conditions.’” And: “There are no lawyer jokes. Only true stories.”

I’m not what you’d call political—partly owing to how I was raised, and partly owing to temperament. But what got me to thinking about the foregoing, is that there are a disproportionate amount of elected politicians who are lawyers in the United States Congress, on both sides of the aisle. Now, as some have opined, perhaps part of the explanation for this is that in the U.S., aside from successful business people, not many professions can make the kind of money needed to launch a winning career in politics. However, another explanation may simply be that lawyers are adept in rhetoric and have a proclivity to law-making. Whatever the case, it remains that what appears to be the most disliked profession is also the most elected. A curious irony? Or is it?

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