Survey reveals public perception of lawyers is very low


Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 1:06 a.m.
Encouraged to ask questions before the start of a recent area murder trial, one Alachua County juror gave the judge and lawyers a start with his query.
Can we trust what the lawyers say, he asked.
A few, long seconds of silence passed, accompanied by grins from some in the audience, before the judge offered a carefully-worded answer, explaining that trial lawyers provide a road map of their case through their opening statements and closing arguments. But it's the evidence offered in the witness stand that should decide the verdict, the judge said.
The question surprised some in the courtroom but not Francine Walker with The Florida Bar. "There are tons of anecdotes like that," she said.
It's part of what representatives from The Bar describe as an alarming trend of public distrust of lawyers. The misconceptions, they said, are fed by television shows such as "The Practice" and "Judge Judy."
The group points to a recent survey done by The American Bar Association that concluded the public considers the legal profession among the least reputable institutions in America. The only group that ranked lower was the media.
Some people may not like attorneys and believe they are dishonest.
But the truth, Bar members say, is that of the group's 70,000 members, 99 percent never do anything wrong. And the 1 percent who do are prosecuted by their peers.
For example, they point to The Bar's prosecution of famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. He ultimately was found guilty of ethical violations involving a Gainesville federal case where he paid himself out of stock owned by a convicted drug smuggler and was disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court last year.
Florida Bar President Tod Aronovitz said, "Thousands and thousands who go to work every single day do the very best job we can for our clients in our courtroom and our community.
"The lawyers of Florida are proud of the work that we do . . . and we are proud to speak out about the great work we do. We are proud to talk about the fact that fewer than 1 percent violate our high ethical standards and those lawyers are promptly and efficiently prosecuted by The Florida Bar. We are the only profession where we publicize reprimands. There is no other profession in Florida that does that."
Other lawyers apparently agree that the public needs to be better informed about their work. A 2001 survey showed the majority of The Bar's members believe public information is the most important issue facing the profession.
Gainesville lawyer Robert Rush, who is a member of The Bar's Board of Governors and represents the 8th Judicial Circuit that includes Gainesville, said restoring trust in the legal profession is vitally important.
"If we don't have respect for lawyers, we're not going to have respect for the law, and we are not going to be able to enforce the law," Rush said.
To argue their case, for the past six months The Bar has fought a public opinion battle. The goal is to open the lines of communication between the legal profession and the public.
The push, called the "Dignity in Law" campaign, is no whitewash or advertising effort, Aronovitz said.
"Harmful misperceptions have reached the point where some Floridians have lost confidence," Aronovitz explained why the program was started. "That question that that juror had is really one of the reasons why The Florida Bar has taken this historic step."
The campaign has included updated information on the group's Web site with more data about the legal profession. The Bar also is publicizing programs that offer information about areas of law such as probate court and real estate transactions.
In early 2003, a committee with The Bar will evaluate the campaign's progress, Rush said.
A less conventional approach to getting the good word out about attorneys took place at last year's University of Florida and Miami football game, Aronovitz said. Eight former Gator football players - now lawyers - walked out on the field and were introduced to the crowd. "We weren't aiming to convince 80,000 football fans . . . that they should love lawyers," Aronovitz said.
The point, organizers said, was to get lawyers out in a public venue and show people who makes up the legal community.
Aronovitz said the emphasis on the profitability of law firms and the belief that lawyers make a lot of money have negatively impacted public perception of lawyers. In reality, he said the starting salary for a prosecutor, a public defender or a government lawyer generally is less than $34,000.
Law students now graduate with an average debt exceeding $80,000.
An average attorney in Florida with three to five years prior experience earns about $50,000, according to The Bar. A lawyer with six to eight years experience is paid about $60,000, while a partner in a law firm gets about $100,000.
Some TV programs about attorneys may be favorites with viewers but are part of the problem, real-life lawyers said.
"One is the Sunday night program "The Practice" where you have some criminal defense attorneys portrayed in an absolutely improper manner," Aronovitz said. "Any lawyer will tell you what those actors do on a Sunday night is absolutely impermissible in any courtroom in Florida."
Rush called "The Practice" and similar programs unrealistic. "I don't watch them because I just go nuts looking at them."
"It's just critical to understand that lawyers are not allowed to cheat, are not allowed to lie, are not allowed to steal. If you lie in court knowingly, you're going to be suspended, at the very least. You're facing disbarment."
Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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