He didn’t laugh at lawyer jokes

He didn’t laugh at lawyer jokes
By Peter S. Stamatis

Last month, this column lamented the current state of American politics, a blood-sport that seems to attract mostly people who are not qualified for positions of public trust, characters oftentimes more interested in celebrity or power rather than self-sacrifice and service.

When the wrong people, again and again, are put into leadership positions and make the decisions and policies the rest of us are bound to live by, bad things inevitably happen — taxes go up to pay for pet projects used to ensure re-election; kickbacks are paid; bribes are accepted; contracts are rigged; nepotism becomes the norm; etc.

In other words, it’s garbage in, garbage out. So it’s no surprise that politicians today enjoy some of the lowest approval ratings ever. This week alone, RealClearPolitics.com, which averages the country’s major political polls, showed a national congressional disapproval rating of just over 76 percent.

So what really are the effects of, time and time again, putting the wrong people into such important positions? Generally speaking, it is the consistent directing of our society towards its fall.

Merely by way of example, consider for a moment our nation’s financial mess. With the exception of several years during the Clinton administration (Democrat President, Republican Congress), our elected officials have consistently spent more than they have taken in each year. And those deficits have added, year after year, to the national debt, a number which currently sits just shy of $13 trillion, a staggering and incomprehensible figure. How long can we go on like this?

Another way our society is harmed is through relentless swipes at the legal profession. We have all heard these people claim again and again, and in one lame platitude after another, how lawyers are a scourge upon our society. In recent years, lawyers have been blamed for everything from doctors leaving the practice of medicine, to excessive insurance premiums, to high jury verdicts (as if the defendants who have been ordered to pay them were unrepresented and blameless victims). One of the more popular and offensive canards is that lawyers clog our courts day in day out with “frivolous lawsuits.” Is a “frivolous lawsuit practice” really a popular and profitable business model?

All too often, we lawyers stand by and allow these prevarications to be emitted into the public consciousness. And while it certainly harms our reputations, it harms our nation’s legal system even more, the indispensable place where over disputes are peacefully resolved. Our inaction amounts to what Cicero called in his “De Officiis, On Moral Duties,” the great fault of “passive injustice,” remaining silent because of our own interests or inattention.

So we shrug off lawyer jokes when what we should be doing is getting more involved, using our skills and training to boil down problems and direct our fellow-citizens towards solutions. I recently heard one caller on a talk show say that lawyers were the “problem” with government, that because we bill by the hour, we have been trained to perpetuate problems, not to solve them. A ridiculous statement to which no one responded.

So it’s time to step it up. We should treat over-reaching attacks upon attorneys as what they are, attacks upon our judicial system. Consider the late Francis A. Nolan. I had the privilege, for a time, to be Frank’s mentee. He was one of the best criminal trial attorneys to grace the courtrooms of Illinois. A former Cook County state’s attorney and the son of a courtroom clerk in Brooklyn, Frank was the gentleman’s gentleman. He was eloquent in a 1940s sort of way; he cared about his clients and he loved, I mean loved, our profession.

Frank wasn’t a litigator — he was a trial lawyer. And boy, he was as brilliant at it as he was proud of it. He tried more cases than he could count. He could pick a jury, deliver an opening statement, conduct direct and cross examinations, and then close like no one else. Clients and their families came to him when they were in trouble, real trouble. And he gave them comfort and then he gave it his all. He cared for his clients in a way that showed only the utmost esteem for our profession.

Frank never laughed at lawyer jokes. He didn’t think they were funny, but even more so, he didn’t want to dignify them. Frank used to talk about how after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the lawyers in his life answered the call. When he was undergoing chemo and radiation therapies and was too tired to work and said he “looked like something from outer space,” he proudly told me about how his landlords, lawyers mind you, waived his rent; and how his friends, lawyers as well, not only covered his cases and court appearances, but continued referring him cases, kept him in the loop, took control of the wheel when he couldn’t. “Lawyers are some of the best people I know. I love being a lawyer. I’m proud to be a lawyer.” He said these kinds of things over and over.

So what about us? Should we lawyers continue to remain quiet pawns to the self-serving ends of others? Should we continue to allow politicians to transform the term “trial lawyer” into an epithet, as if lawyers who try cases are the cause of society’s ills? On the contrary, perhaps we should follow Frank’s example and remember what a privilege it is to be a lawyer, to eschew mocking it and to respond when an unjustified criticism is launched.

After all, as the judicial systems’ caretakers, isn’t it our job to protect it?

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