The Case for Lawyers | Letters | Chicago Reader

The Case for Lawyers 

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To the editors:

Patrick Griffin is obviously from a different generation than mine ["The Catcher in the Drain," May 29]. I graduated law school in 1977, and hardly any of my colleagues from the same era enjoyed law school. Most of them viewed it pretty much the same way I did--not unlike spending three years getting root canal work done, except that your teeth aren't any better when you're finished.

But we went to law school anyway, because we had some very good reasons for wanting to be lawyers. For the women among us, it was one of the few ways we could hope to make as much money as a moderately competent man with a bachelor's degree, without having to study calculus or organic chemistry in the process. For the liberal-arts grads, it was the last refuge of the nonspecialist, virtually the only vocation left in which your image improves if you're good at something outside your field. For the 60s retreads, it was a way to bring our ideals into the real world and still make a living of sorts. But then, we were also the last generation to graduate law school pretty much unburdened by debt. Which left us free to enjoy the other great thing about being a lawyer--the fantastic variety of ways of being a lawyer, so that you can change careers two or three times without having to change professions.

I don't envy the kids who go to law school now, especially the ones who aren't in love with the law. What they mainly have to look forward to is four or five years of indentured servitude, and a lifetime of being the butt of lawyer jokes. But Griffin seems to think the popular prejudice against lawyers is justified, and that disturbs me.

Lawyers as a group are probably no more virtuous than the practitioners of any other profession (except that we're a lot more willing to do pro bono work than most doctors, dentists, and CPAs, much less plumbers and auto mechanics). But we're also no worse.

Our most besetting sin is our willingness to do what our clients want, even when the appropriate response to a client demand is a referral to a hit man. Behind every greedy, nitpicking, vindictive lawyer is a greedy, nitpicking, vindictive client, who has probably already fired three other lawyers for not being greedy, nitpicking, or vindictive enough.

Lawyers, like politicians, are the target of prejudice because Americans have become intolerant of any method of resolving conflicts or distributing resources that requires more intellectual sophistication and patience than an unlicensed firearm. We are uncomfortable with the notion that the ordinary citizen has the right to demand redress of grievances from her corporate or governmental betters. We no longer really believe in the basic premise of the adversarial system--that there are at least two sides to every dispute, and each of them is entitled to present its case. The costs of lawyering that Griffin cites are largely the expenses incurred by the big corporations and governmental agencies, when those pesky lawyers keep them from doing things as cheaply and expeditiously as possible, regardless of the (usually unreckoned) cost to ordinary people from unsafe products, on-the-job accidents, promiscuous dumping of hazardous waste, and so on.

Before we decide to "kill all the lawyers," or strangle them at birth as Griffin suggests, we should look carefully at countries in which the legal profession is either nonexistent or cowed into submission to the political and business elite--countries like Colombia and China. Resolving our disputes and distributing our resources without lawyers will benefit only those who already have the least need of lawyers--the people with the literal or figurative big guns.

Marian Henriquez Neudel

S. Kimbark

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