It’s easy to be cynical. I often am myself. It’s particularly easy to believe in stereotypes, especially if they are likely to attract popular support.
One such stereotype is that all lawyers are self-serving, interested only in their fees, rather than their clients, or the common good. It is often suggested, for example, that all lawyers run cases with the aim of maximising their fees, rather than benefitting their clients.
Well, I’m sure that the legal profession contains some people who have such an attitude. But then, so does every walk of life. You will find examples even the medical profession, which is generally held in the highest public esteem. However, to tar all lawyers with this brush is to fall into the trap of going along with the popular view, without critical thought or research.
What got me thinking about this ‘lawyers only care about their wallets’ cliché? Well, it was a conversation I witnessed on Twitter (which, despite all its faults, can be a useful vehicle for serious discourse) between Baroness Deech and various family lawyers regarding the Baroness’s Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill 2017-19 which, as that title suggests, aims to reform the law regarding financial remedies on divorce.
The Bill has been strongly criticised by many very eminent family lawyers (and also some rather less eminent such as myself), as I explained when I wrote here about it last November.
But it wasn’t the merits or otherwise of the Bill that got me thinking, it was the Baroness’s response to criticism on Twitter. She tweeted:
“The aim [of the Bill] is to have less of the couple’s assets go on lawyers’ costs. So of course it is unpopular in some quarters!”
As one lawyer responded, this was a “cheap shot” at family lawyers, suggesting that they are only opposed to the provisions of the Bill because they believe that they would get less work if it was enacted. It is particularly sad, but perhaps not entirely surprising, that someone in the position of the Baroness should stoop to using the stereotype in this way to gain popular support.
But I have some news for those who think in this way, and it may come as a shock: not all lawyers are self-serving.
Sticking with the example of reform of family law, lawyers have long advocated reforms that were likely to reduce the amount of work that they do, and therefore the amount of fees that they receive. Without much thought I can give two shining examples of this.
Firstly, the introduction of a system of no-fault divorce. This has almost universal support amongst family lawyers. But think about it: contested divorce brings in work for family lawyers, and the animosity stirred up by having to attribute blame for the breakdown of the marriage makes it more likely that the parties will contest finances or arrangements for children, thereby giving more work to lawyers.
Which brings me to the other example. Contrary to popular belief, many family lawyers have long been supporters of ‘alternative dispute resolution’, i.e. resolving family disputes by other methods than going to court, such as mediation (it became compulsory a few years back for anyone issuing a family application to attend a meeting to assess whether the case was suitable for mediation). Obviously, contested court proceedings will be far more lucrative for lawyers than having the disputes resolved in mediation, but that does not stop many family lawyers advocating mediation, and suggesting it to their clients, as I used to do when I was practising.
So when lawyers give their views on law reform they are not necessarily thinking only of protecting their fee income.
And of course lawyers are likely to have something to say about reform of the law, simply because they are (obviously) experts in the field. Family lawyers see the effects of the law on their clients every day, and understand better than most how any proposed reform is likely to play out. Their view is worth listening to, rather than being cheaply dismissed by reference to some popular stereotype.
There are, of course, other ways in which lawyers are anything but self-serving (I hope I do not need to explain that most advice given by lawyers to their clients is for the benefit of the client, not the lawyer’s bank balance). I think, for example, of the enormous amount of pro-bono (free) work that they do, something that very few other professions do. And lawyers also raise huge amounts for charity.
So next time you see a lawyer make a contribution to a debate on law reform, give them a serious listen, rather than dismissing them as being purely self-serving. They may just have something important to say.