Attorneys seem to have a negative reputation, unlike most other professionals. Common stereotypes of lawyers include negative labels such as: liar, greedy, wealthy, impersonal, overaggressive, and arrogant. While we understand that those labels can be and have been attributed to other professions, the legal world is particularly attacked. The reason for this view seems to lie in the history of the legal profession itself. From the beginning, lawyers have had a polarizing effect in popular opinion. We thought we would look into the puzzling question: Why do lawyers have a bad reputation?
Where do these negative stereotypes come from?
Lawyers have gotten a bad rap from the beginning. Prior to the Roman Emperor Claudius’ decree lifting the ban on legal fees in the Roman Empire, it was frowned upon to collect money while advocating for someone else before a court. Advocates were generally highly educated, rhetorically talented, wealthy, and came from prominent family backgrounds. They were either highly respected or loathed by those who disagreed with them—regardless, they were good at what they did.
“Woe to ye lawyers, also!”
Some passages in the Bible portray lawyers to be both cunning and conniving. In ancient times, lawyers were associated with the Pharisees and the upper echelon of Jewish society—two groups that were often accused by Jesus in the New Testament. For example, in Luke 11, Jesus condemns the lawyers for having “lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers.” These lawyers were accused of being false advocates, taking advantage of those whom they were supposed to represent and help.
During the rise of Christianity (particularly in Western Europe) and the growing need for advocates who specialized in the religious laws, or “canon law,” that also governed the land, lawyers continued to be polarizing. They were criticized for being greedy and immoral because they “sold” the truth, when it should be given freely. Lawyers were consistently seen as opportunists, quick to exact fees.
Lawyer jokes as seen in popular culture seem to have originated in the 16th and 17th centuries in England. Evidence for lawyers’ bad reputations and the universality of lawyer jokes can be found in the fact that they surface numerous times in Shakespeare plays. In King Lear, for example, Shakespeare inserts a jab at attorneys during an interaction between King Lear, his Fool, and the Earl of Kent in Act 1, Scene 4. The Fool, called in by the King, chastises him for the position that he finds himself in and provides wisdom for the king through jingles, jokes and poems. After one such bit of wisdom, the Earl of Kent calls the Fool’s speech meaningless, saying “This is nothing, fool.” The fool replies, “Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer. You gave me nothing for ’t.—Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” The comparison of the fool’s response can be compared to the sentiment that the lawyer is of no use unless he is paid. Other Shakespearean lawyer jokes include Mercutio’s line from Romeo and Julet: “O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;” Hamlet’s derisive rant beginning with “why may not that be a skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” and finally the cunning example of Portia disguised as a lawyer in the Merchant of Venice, which ends in her tricking Shylock into accepting Bassanio’s offer. From these play references, we know that lawyer jokes go back at least to the 1600s.
Shysters and Ambulance Chasers
More modern terms used to describe lawyers include terms like “shyster” and “ambulance chaser.” These derogatory terms come from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While it is agreed that the actual origin of the word “shyster” is unknown, the term has been used to describe lawyers who are smart, but greedy and unethical. Even Disney used a character, Sylvester Shyster, in the 1930s to reflect the corrupt reputation of lawyers.
Interestingly, one of the earliest uses of the term “ambulance chaser” was used in a Utah newspaper in September 1896. A year later, in 1897, the Congressional Record solidified the use of the term and cited its common occurrence in New York City. In these early years, the term “ambulance chaser” mainly referred to lawyers in New York City who were known to be available whenever there was a car crash or train wreck. Abraham Gatner, a New York Lawyer, openly embraced the label and arranged with a local law firm to sign accident victims up for immediate legal help.
As a result of a long history of ill-repute, lawyers’ reputations continue to suffer today. According to Stanford legal professor and scholar Deborah Rhode, 60% of the American public still views lawyers as greedy. Only 20% of the public views lawyers as honest and compassionate. Many believe that lawyers do not seek justice, but rather look out for their own profit.
Unless you have personal, positive experience with attorneys, you may share this distorted view. While the legal profession is susceptible to corruption as much as any other, most lawyers are ethical, honest, hard-working professionals.