Lawyers attempt to mend image
Published: Saturday, January 18, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 11:22 p.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."
But some say it's the lawyers, not television, that have earned lawyers their bad reputation. Improving public opinion, they say, will take greater oversight of the legal profession by non-lawyers.
The Florida Bar referred 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 news media.
Some people may not like lawyers 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 in 2001.
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."
Chris Fox, 57, of Hawthorne, who was called as a potential juror in the recently settled case of local nursery plant owners versus the DuPont Co., believes that on the whole, lawyers are OK.
"I think lawyers, most of them, are all right. There are a few bad seeds everywhere."
Fox also agreed that some television shows give a bad impression of the profession.
But a Web site from the Citizens for Judicial Accountability - www.judicialaccountability. org - collects stories that show "an urgent need for judicial reform in the civil justice system, which has been converted into a lucrative fee operation."
Amy Mashburn, a lawyer and a University of Florida law professor of professional responsibility and legal ethics, said the problem is twofold.
On one hand, the negative perception of lawyers is inherent because many lawyers deal with adversarial situations and the public has misconceptions about the law and regulations lawyers work under. But, she said, to some extent lawyers' sagging reputation also is earned. Recent scandals such as the collapse of large companies haven't helped lawyers' case for a better public image.
"The public rightly perceives, in recent corporate examples, that the lawyers are involved," Mashburn said.
"I don't want to say all of the public has a bad opinion of lawyers," she said.
But bad experiences with lawyers generally happen when a person is already in a situation where they feel powerless.
"When you feel like you have been failed by someone when you are in need, that's the basis for resentment," she said.
Lawyers apparently agree that the public needs to be better informed about their work. A 2001 survey showed that 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 its 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, Aronovitz said.
"Harmful misperceptions have reached the point where some Floridians have lost confidence," Aronovitz said, explaining 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 lawyers took place at last year's University of Florida-University of 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.
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.
Law students now graduate with an average debt exceeding $80,000, data from legal associations around the country report.
The problem of TV
But the work of The Florida Bar may not be enough for some.
Mashburn said, "We are privileged in Florida to have one of the best bars in the country when it comes to attorney discipline and regulation. They are very client-protective."
However, she added, "That having been said, there is a great bulk of attorney misconduct that is either not detected or nothing is done about."
There are matters that The Bar does not police, such as fee disputes, Mashburn said, that might be better controlled if more non-lawyers were involved in an oversight process of the legal profession.
Mashburn said she understands both the public's concerns about lawyers and their reluctance to accept the profession's vows that they are doing a good job.
"We are put in a lot of positions of temptation and access to power," Mashburn said of lawyers. When lawyers do fall, they fall far.
"That's why the public really winces when the lawyers act so sanctimonious."
Some TV programs about lawyers 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," he said. "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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