The question is always asked with a smile and the audience consistently responds with a laugh. I don’t resent the question or the person asking it. I do resent the popular (perhaps even pop) notion that lawyers are little more than pen-wielding cutthroats sailing on sheaves of legal-sized paper.
Lawyers are the opposite of pirates. We uphold the law and are required to abide by strict ethical standards. Our duty to our client is high. Yet, we have become a punch line—an easy laugh. Why? When did the opinion about lawyers change from respect to disdain? (Dickens took a shot at lawyers; however, he apparently distrusted anyone that hadn’t spent time in a workhouse or a debtor’s prison. Shakespeare, famously, had one of his comic characters tell another comic character to kill all the lawyers, but the bard was distinguishing between lawyers, the law and justice.)
I suppose that a person might respond to the question by pointing out the vigor with which lawyers pursue their clients’ interests. Pirates, on the other hand, tend to use their cutlasses to pursue their own interests: robbing, ransoming and murdering.
We are a litigious society, and many who have been on the losing end of a battle, or have been grilled during testimony, leave the courtroom, boardroom or conference room angry at their treatment. I recently spoke with a doctor that had suffered the indignation of an investigation into his treatment of a patient, and complained about the ruthlessness of the legal team questioning him. He emphasized that he, who had only seen the patient once, was under attack, and added that the patient—which died—had a low life expectancy anyway. Lawyers must discern the facts in order to distinguish truth from trickery. I told this to the doctor and he, without a touch of irony, replied that when the case concluded and he “won”, he intended to bring an action against the plaintiff. I asked him if he was going to hire an attorney. “Hire an attorney? Of course,” he replied.
Pirates are not known for seeking out truth and justice. They traditionally shy away from courtrooms because of their aversion to hanging.
Greed. My experience is that greed, like gluttony, crosses all socioeconomic barriers on land and sea. Lawyers expect to be paid for their services. The market determines how much a lawyer can charge. If a client believes that a lawyer’s hourly rate is too high, the client is free to hire a different lawyer that charges less. There are lots of lawyers and lots of rates. Not all lawyers are created equal, and the client knows this, and so rarely picks a lawyer based solely on rate.
Pirates do not take what the market will bear. They just take.
Some lawyers make a good living and other lawyers barely make ends meet. Lawyers, just like non-lawyers, are often out of work because of cutbacks and economic forces beyond their control. The practice of law may be a calling, but it is also a job. Lawyers hope that if they work hard they will make a lot of money. (It’s called capitalism and it seems to work.)
Pirates are not to my knowledge subject to market forces. They plunder at every opportunity, during both good and bad times. I’m not sure that piracy is as much a calling as it is a form of sociopathological behavior.
Here’s a fact that may help dismiss the correlation between lawyers and pirates: lawyers work for free. That’s right. Lawyers do pro bono work, assisting individuals and organizations that cannot afford to pay for legal services. Law firms encourage pro bono work. Lawyers and law firms donate to charities that help members of society.
Pirates prey on rich and poor alike. They murder those that cannot pay for their “services”.
I have to write about tort reform, as lawyers’ unwillingness to support this populist notion makes them mercenaries in some people’s minds.
Richard Nixon, not the poster boy for…well pretty much anything in America, let alone economic acumen, imposed wage and price controls in the Seventies and was properly vilified for it. Wages and prices skyrocketed once the government thumb was removed from the free market. (I wonder if government mandated Medicare caps are a source of the inflation of medical costs.) Amazingly, politically conservative politicians want tort reform. Conservatives should be marching against tort reform as a form of government mandated wage controls, not to mention a hallmark of Socialism.
Liberal politicians like tort reform too. I expect that it makes them feel good: nobody should make too much money, unless it can be taxed and redistributed. I believe that is in the liberal politician handbook.
Conservatives and liberals both want tort reform, so why don’t we have it? Simple. Lawyers are civic-minded and won’t contribute to any campaign that would curtail their livelihood. Is this wrong? Not really. I have no doubt that bakers would raise their rolling pins in anger and contempt if politicians tried to tamp down the price of baguettes. Just ask Marie Antoinette.
Pirates adore wage and price controls, as it gives them a free hand to set up black markets. They might even encourage people to sign petitions for wage and price controls, which would be a step toward bringing pirates into the political system. Pirates might, in time, even vote—for corruption of course.
Attorneys can be—and this is true—full of bluster. Sort of like pirates…. There is a key difference though: lawyers rant and rage to put matters right rather than to make matters wrong. This difference, no doubt, is a small one to those that prefer their falsehoods unleavened by accuracy.
There are those that say that lawyers are arrogant. Certainly some lawyers may seem and actually be arrogant. A waiter once hunched over me and demanded that I try the prawns that he set on the table. I explained to him that I did not eat prawns. He refused to move from my side and I refused to eat his prawns. I found him arrogant, especially when he charged my host for the prawns that I did not eat.
Pirates, like some lawyers, some waiters and a good number of other people, are arrogant. Nobody has cornered the market on arrogance yet, although late night talk show hosts that perpetuate punch lines about lawyers while railing against the employers that pay them a pretty good buck, seem to have a strong head start on the rest of us.
So, are lawyers like pirates? Hardly.
The pen is not only mightier than the sword, but it usually forms the letters that spell justice.
Edward Chupack is an attorney for a major law firm. He lives near Chicago. This is his first novel.
To learn more about Long John Silver, please visit www.silverpirate.com