February’s Michael Cohen hearings represented a troubling moment for the legal profession. Mr. Cohen, disbarred as a result of his felony conviction, presented the vision of a lawyer completely unhinged from all of his ethical and legal obligations. On the eve of those hearings, Congressman Gaetz, an attorney in Florida, tweeted what appeared to be threats directed at Mr. Cohen, suggesting that his wife and father-in-law were about to learn about his alleged infidelities. Those comments were investigated by the Florida Bar. Both individuals, through their actions, contributed to a negative public perception of the profession.
Much has been written, and much more will be written, about Mr. Cohen’s actions and testimony, all of which should present an appropriate cautionary tale to lawyers. What is more concerning, however, is the damage Mr. Cohen’s conduct has likely done to the public perception of lawyers. To be fair, Mr. Cohen is not the only lawyer who has cast the profession in a negative light in recent years. But we cannot ignore that the most discussed lawyer in America right now is not someone in the vein of Barbara Jordan, Clarence Darrow, Thurgood Marshall, or the fictional Atticus Finch, but a convicted felon attesting to over ten years of unscrupulous, unethical and illegal behavior.
This issue is not easily dismissed as “just a few bad apples.” A 2013 Pew Research Center study, surveying the public perception of ten professional occupations, found lawyers rated the lowest. According to the study, only 18 percent of Americans reported that lawyers contribute a lot to society (down from 23 percent in a 2009 study) while a third say lawyers contribute “not very much” or “nothing at all.” A 2014 Princeton study found that lawyers, rated highly for competence and low for “warmth”, are among the least trusted professions. Simply put, we have an image problem.
The residual effects of this decline are concerning. For one, lawyers are not immune to its effects. As noted in the ABA’s summary of the 2016 ABA/Hazeldon Betty Ford study on lawyer wellness, “between 21 and 36 percent [of lawyers] qualify as problem drinkers, and that approximately 28 percent, 19 percent, and 23 percent are struggling with some level of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.” “Negative public perception” is listed as one of the contributing favors, as are a number of issues that relate to that perception—social alienation, work addiction and work-life conflict, the profession’s “diversity crisis” and a narrowing of values in favor of profit.
This rise in negative public perception also coincides with the consistent decline of lawyer representation in American politics. A majority of the Founding Fathers were lawyers. A 2017 law review article, entitled “The Decline of the Lawyer-Politician”, found that lawyers made up fully 80 percent of the United States Congress in the mid-19th century, diminishing to 60 percent by the 1960’s, and less than 40 percent by 2016. A recent Connecticut Bar Association communication notes that only about 17 percent of the Connecticut legislature are currently lawyers. As noted in the 2017 article, this decline in lawyers in politics has a potential to undermine the rule of law: “Yet, due process and the protection of legal rights are the tools and language that lawyers are trained in, and … at least historically, lawyer-legislators disproportionately express supporting rule of law values such as judicial independence.”
Additional fallout from our profession’s image problem are numerous. That 85 percent of all family court litigants and over two-thirds of housing court litigants (including property-owning landlords) are self-represented cannot be exclusively attributed to indigency. The rise of alternative legal services providers or increased retention of “Google, Attorney-at-Law” in lieu of a professional licensed attorney are also symptoms.
It’s time for us to address this directly. Run for office! America’s political foundations were built upon the deep commitment to justice, equality, and due process treasured by its many lawyer-founders, and our profession boasts some of the most revered leaders in American history. Find time to teach, either formally or informally. Find time to speak to others about the transformative power of the law and lawyers. Think Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, Miranda v. Arizona, Loving v. Virginia, Baker v. Carr, among so many other groundbreaking cases. Don’t assume that these cases, or even the basic elements of the rule of law, are well-understood, as numerous studies have revealed that civics education and understanding have dropped precipitously in recent decades. Uplift the profession, yourself, and your colleagues whenever you can. Teach a class, make a presentation, visit your child’s classroom, participate in organizations and initiatives like Civics First, the Connecticut Bar Foundation’s Hartford Promise Scholars Mentor Program or the Connecticut Bar Association’s Pathways or Law Camp.
The opportunities to promote our noble profession, which has been so crucial to the evolution of our great nation, are truly endless. We are not Michael Cohen, and Michael Cohen is not us, and it is time to ensure that the public knows that unequivocally.