Monday, March 22, 2010



Lawyers are always in the news. They like talking to the press. And the press likes talking about them. They always have something to say; lawyers are pretty glib. They like free advertising, too. So they are happy to speak up when cameras roll.

But no matter how much press lawyers get, it's usually bad. In most cases, news stories involving lawyers discuss their avarice, moral bankruptcy, hypocrisy or outright criminality. Most recently, for instance, several newspapers reported on the proposed settlement between New York City and 9/11 workers. Apparently, the lawyers in that case (it's a big class action suit) advised the 9/11 workers to settle for around $675 million. That would give the lawyers at least 33%, or $225 million. The 30,000 workers would get the rest. A judge rejected the proposal. The press described it like this: "Judge refuses to bow to greedy lawyers. Rejects 9/11 settlement."

People expect lawyers to be greedy in America. That's their reputation. That's what they do. They intervene in private disputes, work mysterious magic behind the velvet curtain then take their fee. That's just how it works. At the same time, people expect lawyers to break rules as often as they enforce them. Vulgar punners like to cross the word lawyer with "liar;" and the pun is not too far off the mark. When hearing about lawyers, people expect elusiveness, craftiness, dishonesty, theft and nasty-spiritedness. It's all part of the public image. It is no wonder that the public does not respect lawyers. Viewed in the abstract, they are a lousy bunch.

But it's all part of the trade. Lawyering is a lousy business. Government tries its utmost to cultivate respect for the law as a beneficial social construct designed to bring about good. Yet a quick brush with lawyers undermines any respect a citizen might have developed for the law. With lawyers, it's not about doing good. It's about winning. And if winning means subverting good--or even allowing evil to prevail--then so be it. That's business. After all, that's what the client wants. As law firms like to say: "We are result-oriented." How true: Lawyers get results for their clients, even if those results seem despicable to everyone else on earth. The word "result," after all, does not necessarily imply "good" or "ethical." Results depend on who's getting them. A good result for the labor baron is a bad result for the workers. A good result for the State is a bad result for the Defendant. A good result for the employer is a bad result for the employee.

Lawyers sell results. They get them however they can. That is why people don't respect lawyers; they are crass partisans who zealously go to bat for scoundrels. In the process, they milk everyone for money and accuse everyone of lying--except themselves.

Maybe our language has something to do with lawyers' poor reputation in America. Yesterday I thought about the word "lawyer," as well as its interchangeable synonym, "attorney." Then I thought about the German word for lawyer, Rechtsanwalt. I have often uncovered compelling conceptual relationships among English words by comparing their equivalents in foreign languages. Perhaps I could understand why lawyers have such a bad reputation in America by making some linguistic comparisons.

Literally, Rechtsanwalt means "rights advocate." That sounds somehow more detached than "lawyer." Although lawyers are not the most respected members in German society, either, their name reveals something more transcendent than "lawyer." After all, a "rights advocate" is someone who stands up for rights. Rights are principles that mean something greater than individual self-interest. Rights stand for something beyond commerce and winning. Rights symbolize personal worth against government intrusion. Rights are somehow "sacred" and "inviolable." When someone violates a right, the aggrieved person has a claim against the violator. We enshrine rights. They exist beyond life. They encapsulate our deepest values. They express our fundamental expectations as individuals in society. Men have gone to war over rights. They have written philosophical treatises about the "Rights of Man" and launched revolutions to secure "inalienable rights." While rights may just be a human invention, they nevertheless represent something larger in people's lives. People willingly fight for rights. While it is ignoble to die for money, it is noble and just to die for rights.

In this light, a "rights advocate" seems a much nobler name than "lawyer." While lawyers in America--just like Rechtsanwälte in Germany--make their living by defending clients' "rights," their name suggests something far less honorable. "Lawyer" is embarrassingly common. It says nothing about "advocating for rights." Rather, it sounds like just another petty craftsman. In English, after all, the suffix "-yer" historically connotes a street-level artisan, like a "sawyer" (man who crafts wood with a saw) or "bowyer" (man who makes bows). Linguistically, then, lawyers fit into this tradition as "petty craftsmen who bend the law just as a journeyman bends a bow."

This interpretation goes beyond mere mockery. It is surprisingly appropriate in describing the lawyer's role in America. After all, lawyering is all about results in America. It is commercially straightforward. It is no different than manipulating tools to saw planks or build bows. People who want to buy plywood and bows don't care about others' rights. They merely want products to be crafted and built. And lawyers hawk the law in stores, just as sawyers hawked sawcraft in old England.

In a word, the word "lawyer" perfectly expresses the commercial nature of legal practice in America. It is not about "transcendent rights for all." Rather, it is about tailor-made products for particular clients who want particular results. The word's origin conceptually places lawyers exactly where they belong: Among street peddlers and common craftsmen.

But what about "attorney?" Does the synonym save the concept "lawyer" from moral destitution? To determine this, we must examine its etymology. "Attorney" derives from French. It takes its form from the French verb "tourner," meaning "to turn," then adds the Anglicized prefix "at-", meaning "to" or "toward." In French, the past participle of "attourner" is "attourné," meaning "turned to." The suffix "-ey" indicates that at some point an Englishman changed the French past participle into letters he could pronounce: He transformed the foreign-looking "é" into "-ey." Behold: Attorney. Literally: "Person turned to."

So how does this differ from "lawyer?" Is it any "better?" Not much. If anything, the word "attorney" refers to the lawyer's role as confidant and advisor in times of trouble. People need to "turn to" others when something bad happens to them. In some sense, the word "attorney" is paternalistic because it implies that people are too weak to fend for themselves and they need a "father-like" lawyer to shepherd them through difficulty. But in another sense, "attorney" implies that a lawyer is a partisan mercenary who will do anything his client tells him. After all, why would you "turn to" a lawyer if not to win your case at all costs?

In my view, the word "attorney" represents the lawyer's role as adversary in the American system. People "turn to" lawyers when they have a commercial problem. They expect their lawyers to vigorously advance their interests, even if those interests stand at odds with all the world. As a partisan, the attorney will "bend the law" in whatever way he can to win. In this way, the words "attorney" and "lawyer" mutually reinforce the commercial--and result-oriented-- nature of legal practice in America. People expect lawyers to do their bidding, so they "turn to" them. And once they do, they expect lawyers to sell them a ready-made product without quibbling over larger issues like conscience or ethics.

This is not to say that some American lawyers are not "rights advocates." On many levels, they are. Every legal case involves rights. But not all rights are noble. In fact, most legal rights involve contracts, property and other social mechanisms designed to maintain private ownership. As a consequence, legal rights perpetuate unfairness because those who can assert them generally have much more power than those who do not. To speak broadly, those with more riches often have substantially more legal rights than those without riches.

But these are merely "technical," private legal rights. There are public rights, too. And those rights have a largely positive connotation. Most people think about public (constitutional) rights when they hear the word "rights," like the right to free speech and the right to equal protection under law. That is why the German word Rechtsanwalt conveys a more positive connotation with regard to the law than the English words "lawyer" and "attorney." It focuses on rights, not commerce or craftsmanship.

In America, people "turn to lawyers." Yet that is the reason why lawyers always get bad press. No one likes a crafty, small-minded, contentious partisan who bickers and backstabs for a fee. Yet that is what lawyers do here. They are crafty craftsmen who bend bows for a set price, not noble "rights advocates." They sell products, just like any other peddler. But unlike other peddlers, they are paid to fight for one person's "rights"--and trample you if you get in their way.

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