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Heard the latest lawyer joke making the rounds on the Internet? A man walks into a bar and greets a gorgeous single woman. She looks him in the eye and says, “I’ll screw anybody, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.” His hilarious reply: “What law firm are you with?” And that’s probably one of the nicer ones. Opinion polls showing a declining respect for the legal profession are even less amusing. But attorneys exasperated by the public’s perception of the legal world are fighting back. Bar groups in several states are funding radio, print and e-mail campaigns aimed at improving lawyers’ image. But critics assert the only way for lawyers to improve their standing is to go beyond the sterile sphere of public relations to actions that will sway public attitudes. Disenchanted with the public outcry against attorneys and the legal profession, Robert Clifford, who heads the American Bar Association’s Litigation Section and is a founding partner of Clifford Law Offices, a personal injury firm in Chicago, personally financed a $250,000 national telephone survey for the ABA of 750 households. It also included 10 focus groups in five cities including Chicago and Los Angeles whose respondents repeatedly described attorneys as “greedy, manipulative and corrupt.” Only 19 percent of the respondents expressed confidence in lawyers’ work compared with a 50 percent confidence rating for doctors. Seventy-four percent viewed lawyers as more interested in winning than seeing justice served, and 69 percent contended that lawyers focused more on making money than serving their clients. The public lambasted criminal defense, personal injury and divorce lawyers, relishing praise for only real estate and civil rights attorneys. About the poll’s accuracy, Sara Parikh, vice president at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates in Chicago, which conducted it, says “small samplings are reliable and have a plus or minus accuracy of 6 percentage points.” Ironically, 58 percent of people who had hired lawyers were very satisfied with the results of their attorneys’ efforts. Robert Hirshon, past president of the ABA and an attorney with Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon in Portland, Maine, is not surprised by the discrepancy between the public’s negative view of lawyers in general and positive view of their own attorneys. Asked what they like about their attorney, members of the public often reply, “He leaves no stone unturned, she is willing to go the mat, focused on end results, is aggressive and wants to win,” Hirshon says. He suggests the same attributes that repulse the public about attorneys are the qualities they seek from their own barrister. Still, the profession has to deal with the public’s view that the profession is out to exploit, not help, them. Many experts ascribe lawyers’ rotten reputation to their being associated with defending criminals rather than being based on lawyer’s inappropriate actions. “It’s hard to wear a white hat when someone you represent wears a black hat,” says Jan. C. Christensen, executive director at Silver & Freedman, a Los Angeles corporate firm and author of Law Office Dynamics. SKUNKS AND ROSES Paul Teich, associate dean and professor of law at New England School of Law in Boston, who teaches Contemporary Popular Criticism of Lawyers and the Legal System, which helps lawyers deal with criticism toward the profession, says, “No one can wrestle with a skunk and come up smelling like a rose.” Several factors explain attorneys’ reputations, including that they are perceived as finding loopholes to free their clients, who may be murderers, rapists or corporate raiders; as charging too much money and not being upfront about their fees; and as soliciting clients for personal injury cases. Hirshon traces the first signs of mistrust for lawyers to advertising for attorneys, which he says “pushed the envelope” of decency, starting about 20 years ago. Teich attributes the public’s disrepute of attorneys to the media’s pouncing on negative stories involving lawyers’ lack of ethics while ignoring attorney’s pro bono and volunteer efforts. High-profile personal injury cases — tobacco suits and the widely misunderstood McDonald’s coffee scalding case — exacerbate ill feelings toward attorneys. Lawyers can suffer repercussions when the public carries negative views of them. The April ABA survey said that 71 percent of the respondents had “some occasion during the past year that might have led them to hire a lawyer,” but only half of those actually planned to hire one. A major reason given was money. The poll found that “the greatest number of complaints involve lawyers’ fees,” with people saying lawyers are not candid about fees and fail to account for charges. “What they do is charge for ten minutes or an hour, but never account for all of their minutes,” one said. Moreover, if attorneys are not respected, it contributes to attorneys’ dissatisfaction, exodus from the profession and lowered morale, Christensen says. When Tod Aronovitz, president of the Florida Bar and president of Aronovitz Trial Lawyers in Miami, spoke to judges and lawyers throughout Florida, “they would focus on one issue: Our profession is widely misunderstood and there are harmful misperceptions that have been perpetuated,” he says. Motivated by attorneys’ disenchantment with their crumbling image, the Florida Bar instituted a “Dignity in Law” campaign on July 1. It asked its 70,000 members to contribute $45 each to raise $750,000 for a campaign that will “inform the public about the truth that the majority of lawyers are honest and hard-working,” Aronovitz says. So far, $200,000 has been raised. “Dignity in Law” targets 1,000 journalists and government officials, described by Aronovitz as “influential decision-makers” who will be sent “blast e-mails describing the great work that lawyers and judges do for our clients, in our courtroom and in our communities.” Prior to launching the campaign, the Florida Bar surveyed 880 journalists about their attitudes toward the legal profession and rated their stories as positive or negative. As the campaign continues, it will monitor their changing attitudes toward lawyers to measure the campaign’s effectiveness. Despite its good intentions, the “Dignity in Law” campaign triggered a backlash, at least among newspaper columnists and letters to the editor. Stephen Van Drake, the South Florida Business Journal‘s legal columnist, suggested that attorneys scrap the PR campaign and instead show more “humanity.” He urged attorneys to “solve problems like professionals, not gladiators whose goal remains prolonging litigation at the expense of clients, take a brush-up legal ethics course twice-a-year and then practice what you learn, and donate at least 10 percent of your usual billable annual hours to help the working poor.” Tallahassee, Fla., Democrat columnist Bill Cotterell chimed in, noting, “People don’t like lawyers gaming the system for personal profit — enormous profit — and not caring who gets hurt.” He recommended adopting “a loser pays” system under which the losing plaintiff in a meritless suit would pay the defendant’s legal expenses. TURNING TO CONSULTANTS When polled, 20,000 Wisconsin attorneys asked its state Bar to “do something about improving the image of lawyers,” explains Pat Ballman, president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a partner at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee. As a result, the Bar surveyed 600 adults about attorneys, which revealed that 35 percent held favorable views, 35 percent were neutral and 26 percent unfavorable toward lawyers. The Bar decided that it could “influence the 35 percent of people who have not made up their minds,” Ballman says. The Wisconsin Bar hired consultants Flaherty & Associates to institute a branding campaign based on focus group response to the question, “What were the best qualities you like about lawyers?” Respondents prefer lawyers who provide “expert advice, solve problems and serve the community,” notes Ballman. In July 2002, the Bar launched its “Wisconsin Lawyers — Expert Advisers Serving You” campaign with $15,000 worth of radio ads on public radio, $15,000 for print ads in Wisconsin regional and business magazines, and a downloadable “tool kit” with positive information on lawyers that so far has triggered more than 900 responses. After a year, the Bar will survey the 36 percent who were neutral about attorneys to measure the campaign’s effectiveness and determine whether their views have changed. Catherine Crier, an attorney and former judge, host of “Catherine Crier Live” on Court TV and author of “The Case Against Lawyers” (Broadway Books, 2002), says, “these ad and branding campaigns are putting a Band-Aid on the problem. Commercials and advertising don’t do anything to address the underlying areas. I’d rather see a campaign that introduces ethics classes.” Crier would prefer to see the law “eliminate contingency fees except in cases aimed at the poor and institute loser pays in all categories. In that way, good lawyers can proceed with dignity and pursue cases that are meritorious, and those pressing frivolous actions corrupting our system will no longer have a forum.” Hirshon says that attorneys doing good deeds will gradually help improve their image. He cites pro bono work for the Victim Compensation Fund for victims of Sept. 11, providing legal advice for active military personnel in Operation Enduring Legal Aid to Military Personnel and taking a stand on civil liberties during a time of national security. Despite their good deeds and pro bono work, too many lawyers bring this rotten reputation on themselves, say some experts. “Lawyers like to be thought of as sharks,” Teich notes. “They want to be seen as tough people who can steel themselves to criticism.” Lawyers are in a tough spot because “you can never have a case where both sides win. People are going through painful times in court, and lawyers are the ones that make things happen,” Ballman says.

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