Lawyers Serve a Misunderstood Role in Society

“Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, an honest lawyer, and an old drunk were walking together when they spotted a $100 bill. Who gets it? The old drunk, of course, because the rest are mythical creatures.”

Lawyer jokes are very common, and we all find them humorous. Lawyers, nonetheless, serve an often misunderstood and underappreciated role in society. Sure there are corrupt lawyers just like there are corrupt people in any profession. But I have found that most lawyers truly care about their clients and strive to play their part in bettering their community.

In honor of Law Day, which comes in May of every year, this column will deviate from the standard format and highlight the positive role of the lawyers in society.

Many of the architects of this nation’s Constitution were lawyers including Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Accordingly, lawyers left their imprint on the early formation of this country.

The Constitution brilliantly established a series of checks and balances to ensure that one branch of government does not usurp another branch’s power. Hence the important role of the judiciary in this system as a safeguard to our civil rights and against tyranny.

People often criticize lawyers for defending clients they know to be guilty. The Constitution was founded on the Blackstonian principle that it is “better for ten guilty men go free than for one innocent man to suffer.” Thus, the accused were given a series of rights including the right to counsel and the right to a jury trial. In defending the accused, the lawyer must place adherence to the Constitution above personal convictions about the client. The process is much greater than the individual lawyer.

Additionally, a jury trial puts the power back in the hands of the people to determine the innocence or guilt of their peers. Although Robert Frost defined a jury as a panel of people “chosen to decide who has the better lawyer,” most judges would likely say that juries take their role very seriously and generally perform a superb job in sorting through the evidence.

Although generally considered defenders of laws, lawyers also often challenge laws and promote social change. For example, Kansas attorneys were very instrumental in the civil rights movement through the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine for public education and required the desegregation of schools across America.

Indeed, by its very nature, the adversarial legal system makes lawyers unpopular. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the lawyer is the enemy. At a minimum, the lawyer must shoulder their clients’ problems and often serve as the bearer of undesirable news.

As the legal system continues to evolve, new forms of resolving disputes will persist and a lawyer’s role will change. For example, most civil cases are now decided by alternative dispute resolution outside the courtroom.

In sum, although many lawyer jokes are well placed, despite what some may believe, lawyers do have a significant role in society. Lawyers serve as vital defenders, architects and antagonists of the law.