Show me a lawyer who’s shocked to hear about the profession’s poor reputation, and I’ll show you… well, I wouldn’t be able to show you anything. We’ve all heard the lawyer jokes.
In September of this year, Avvo asked about 2,000 Americans to rate their respect for people in a given list of professions. Of the twelve types of professionals we asked about, the only two that fared worse than lawyers were car salesmen and politicians.
This is disheartening. But there’s much more to the story, and in this 5-part series about perceptions of lawyers, you’ll hear all about it. But first, in this post, we will dig into the problem.
I recently sat down with people who had been dealing with legal issues and asked them why they think lawyers have such a bad reputation. “They’ll defend criminals and not even care that they’re guilty,” said one woman fervently. “Who does that?!?” Of course, we know that not all lawyers are criminal attorneys, that not all criminal attorneys are in defense, and that not every criminal defendant is guilty. We also know that access to legal representation is what makes our legal system fair. But still.
We’ve also heard people talk about how the only lawyers they really know are those they see on TV. Of course, both good and bad lawyers appear on TV, but thanks to what psychologists call “negativity bias”—our tendency to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information when forming impressions of others—it comes as no surprise that unscrupulous attorneys on TV are long remembered while noble defenders of social order are not.
And then there’s the issue of money. In another September Avvo survey of about 900 people with recent legal issues, 67% said lawyers are too expensive. Compare this to the proportion that said lawyers are compassionate (21%) or authentic (25%). One individual I talked to said, “Sure, lawyers are expensive, but so are doctors. They don’t get the same reputation because insurance pays for a lot of our medical bills.” No wonder why it’s easier to see doctors as noble.
Ok, so we know what people are thinking. But we might also wonder: doesn’t the average American understand that lawyers don’t all really suck? The truth is, people are more sophisticated in their assessment than we might believe. According to our research, almost three-quarters (73%) of people with legal issues feel that lawyers are like most people: some are good, and some are bad. In other words, lawyers are (gasp!) human. For example, one-third (36%) of Americans surveyed by Avvo believe that lawyers are extroverts. A quarter of respondents (23%) imagine law offices as being filled with witty banter. And most don’t really think that all lawyers are alcoholics who sleep around. In fact, only 14% say lawyers are more likely than the average person to cheat on their spouses, and only 11% say lawyers are heavy drinkers.
Although it might feel like lawyers are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to earning respect, this is not necessarily true. When people with recent legal issues were asked to share three words that immediately came to mind when they thought of lawyers, most said “expensive” and “money.” But a large proportion also said “knowledgeable,” “helpful,” and “smart” (see image).
Sizing lawyers up against other professionals reveals only part of the story. In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll share another piece of the story, one that offers hope and guidance for lawyers seeking to overcome negative perceptions.