Ethics & Image (Winter 2010)
by Chris Heil, ATLA President 2009-10
* Originally published in ATLA Docket, Winter 2010
André Agassi recently released a “tell all” autobiography that has been the subject of much discussion. Though details of the book are not important for this article, the discussion reminded me of André in his youth, when he was brash and colorful. Around that time period, he starred in a series of ads for a camera company in his typical flashy style. The spots all carried the tagline: Image . . . is everything. And though trite, the phrase is unfortunately one of the truest statements to define our current culture.
Like it or not, image is what most of us perceive as truth. It doesn’t matter if it is actually factor (and often is not). Athletes, celebrities and other high profile people all cultivate their images as if the public’s perception of them was a commodity. That is what they sell, and that is what the public buys, or at least wants to buy. The general perception of lawyers, and more specifically trial lawyers, has fallen victim to this effect.
Generally speaking, the public would rather see the image than the truth. Unfortunately, the image that has been cultivated by our opponents is that of the greedy trial lawyer who files frivolous lawsuits. I have non-lawyer friends who tell me (as almost a backhanded compliment) that they think I’m one of the few they think is not like that. Yet, the truth is that 99% of us are respectable, honest, hardworking and empathetic. But, it only takes one slip up to feed the fires of our negative image. Why? Because that one slip up is what everyone wants and expects to hear.
At the risk of being overly simplistic, I urge you not to feed this image. Obviously, none of us would consciously harm our profession or our profession’s image, so I’m asking you to look a little deeper. We have to change the way we discuss what we do, especially among non-lawyers, and it has to start with how we talk amongst ourselves. We need to discuss justice in terms of right and wrong, not just dollars and cents. When we talk about ourselves we tend to brag about sizable awards or settlements and pat the backs of those who get them. This feeds the frenzy that fuels our negative image. To be sure, a large verdict is a good thing for the client, but it is as much a reflection of the magnitude of harm as it is the justice of the cause. So called “small cases” such as $5,000 settlements, custody battles, protecting the battered wife, helping clients file for bankruptcy due to medical bills are not sexy, but they are truly where justice is done. Be proud of those smaller accomplishments because that is where the framework of our image can be rebuilt. There is no such thing as a small case, because it’s the biggest issue the client may have or ever have and deserves our same effort and dedication as any other. But it also should be something we brag on as much as any large verdict. When you discuss what you do, tell the small stories of justice, they’ll go a long way toward changing our image.