Denver Bar Association
June 2001
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Why People Hate Lawyers

by Sheila Nielsen

The publics thirst for knowledge creates a viscous cycle.
By Sheila Nielsen

What do Jerry Springer, Princess Diana, former President Clinton’s impeachment inquiry and the Information Age have to do with society’s enmity for lawyers? The answer has to do with the debunking of heroes: who does it and to whom.

We live in the Information Age. From the beginning, mankind has been curious, always seeking new information. Adam and Eve needed knowledge and ate the serpent’s offering because nothing is more tempting than information—except maybe sex, and I suppose some would argue that sex is another form of physical information-seeking; an inquiry of the flesh.

And speaking of flesh, there is nothing that excites us animals more than hearing the otherwise secret details of people’s lives. The paparazzi hounded Diana hoping to be the first to publicize the secrets of her life and loves. John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife could not argue in a secluded park without a photographer videotaping it from beneath a park bench. And Jerry Springer hosts daily boxing matches as people reveal ugly secrets about each other that ruin self-esteem and invade personal privacy. And the list goes on.

Celebrities and public figures are destined to be the objects of the public’s insatiable curiosity. That is because people in high places are our idols and our heroes—or what passes for them in this cynical era. Like our parents appeared when we were young, celebrities take on special qualities; they seem to glow compared to us mere mortals.

Of course what is really going on is that we imbue ordinary people, who happen to be in the limelight, with our need for heroes who can be special, elevated and both larger and better than life. But that’s not all. After we deify them, we stalk them and invade their privacy so that we can learn more about who they are in "real life."

Our appetite for knowledge and revelations about people in high places is aided and abetted by superior technology. Telephoto lenses, access to the Internet and high tech recording devices all give us the chance to know more, see more and reveal more of the gritty details of the lives of our so-called idols. When we turn our energies to ferreting out the truth about people in high places, we can learn more.

Although Americans love the truth and the pursuit of the truth, we also hate the truth for revealing the defects of our idols. Every adolescent feels that way when she learns demoralizing truths about he childhood idols. Mom doesn’t just nap, she’s drunk in the afternoons; Dad isn’t really on a business trip, he’s having an affair. Our investigations into the truth often bring with them a toxic dose of disillusionment. The world feels bleaker, sadder and somehow more empty.

No, Virginia there is no Santa Claus.

Lawyers feel the effects of this tug-of-war between the thrill of revelation and the pain of disappointment. The public craves information and believes it has a right to know the truth. People expect lawyers, as part of the justice system, to uncover the truth. But as with the televised O.J. Simpson trial, the public’s take-home lesson about lawyers seems to be that we are not really defenders of the truth after all.

These days, lawyers are often depicted as liars and legalese is thought to be a barrier to the truth. Movies, television, comedians and cartoonists frequently show lawyers as devious truth-confounders who hide the facts. The public resents lawyers for getting in the way of their right to know. Witness Former President Clinton’s attempt to squirm out of having misrepresented his relationship with Monica Lewinsky by using legalisms to define the sex act. That bit of legal sparring was condemned as obfuscation.

On the other hand, lawyers help the public to learn enough to debunk the idols. We are, sometimes, the messengers who titillate and torture the public with the truth by discovering it and revealing it to the world. A prime example of this is Kenneth Starr’s grand jury. The grand jury is supposed to be a judicial machine for discovering the truth in a secret proceeding. Grand jury proceedings are secret for a good reason: The evidence presented there is not tested for credibility and does not rise to the level of evidence required for trial. Nonetheless, this grand jury and its witnesses leaked all the secrets it could to an eager press and public.

Starr’s politicized grand jury became the engine for a sordid exposé of the very sort the paparazzi dream about. This grand jury ferreted out the truth, all right, and we all showed up to the sickening feast of revelation that spewed from every media outlet. We now know more than we ever wanted to know. We know Clinton is neurotic and tragically flawed, not the cross between Superman and Ward Cleaver that we wanted in a president.

Lawyers who come for counseling sometimes ask me why attorneys used to be respected in this country but now are regarded so poorly. In part, the answer is connected to the role we play as messengers and orchestrators of the debunking of society’s idols. In part, we share the fate of the heroes themselves, thrust upon the pedestal of power and status—a pedestal that can transform into a scaffold with little warning.

Shiela Nielsen is President of Nielsen Consulting Services in Illinois.

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