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Lawyers use various tacks to overcome negative image

Question: How many lawyer jokes are there?

Answer: Only three. The rest are true stories.

And so it goes. For years, lawyers have been the frequent butt of jokes. Numerous Gallup polls taken over the last decade consistently show that Americans rank lawyers “low, very low,” in ethical standards, alongside car salesmen and labor union leaders.

Even lawyers tell self-deprecating lawyer jokes. The legendary cartoon strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

“It’s one thing to wink and nod and laugh among ourselves, but if jokes like that cause people to think poorly about the profession, then we should be more careful,” said Ron Rychlak, associate dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Even though many “mass action” suits have been filed in Mississippi by out of state lawyers, Mississippi lawyers seem to have taken the brunt of the blame. The state has been touted as a lawsuit mecca because of its hefty jury awards and all fingers seemingly point to them.

“I think every lawyer, and certainly every major law firm, in the state is very concerned about image,” said Rychlak. “Of course, they’re primarily concerned with reassuring their clients that they are professionals that don’t engage in bad activities and that they’ll be there to help when needed.”

Phillip L. McIntosh, associate dean of Mississippi College School of Law, said most people are generally satisfied with their own attorney.

“It’s the other guy’s lawyer they don’t like,” he said.

“Frankly, we’ve got problems beyond the image of lawyers with all the mess with our civil justice system, part of which is the mindset of individuals who are going to lawyers hoping they can hit some kind of a jackpot and hit it rich out of some kind of lawsuit,” said W. Scott “Scotty” Welch III, chair of the litigation department at Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, and former president of The Mississippi Bar.

When the conversation turns to tort reform, many lawyers are reluctant to speak publicly, Welch said.

“I spent last year as president of a national organization that is, by design, comprised of half plaintiff and half defense lawyers,” he said. “I was interviewed by national media outlets, like the Wall St. Journal and Fox News, but the number of times somebody asked for an unbiased view was very rare. Part of the reason for that is that if I didn’t give some kind of a sensational response to a question, then they’re not interested. It seems the press is only interested when a lawyer does something bad, which truly means that’s an unusual situation.”

Grady Tollison Jr. of Tollison Law Firm, PA, in Oxford, and president of The Mississippi Bar from 1992-93, said “writers and the public have generally used lawyers as the butt of social commentary.”

“But my concern isn’t that,” he said. “My concern is the attack on the jury system itself. If there’s a failing, it might be in our educational system, where efforts should be directed. We must have a jury system if democracy is going to work.”

Tampering with the jury system isn’t the answer, said McIntosh.

“Like a lot of people, we react when we see a judgment that we think is really out of line based on the information we might have,” he said. “But the public reacts only to what it sees in the news and not the full story as revealed in a courtroom. Also, the public may believe that a lawyer getting 40% or 50% of a big judgment is overreaching. As a result, the contingency fee system is often attacked, but the other side of the coin is that these cases are expensive to try. It may take two, three or even five years of a lawyer’s life to see it come to trial. If he doesn’t win, that lawyer gets nothing. He has to charge what is, in his view, a reasonable percentage to make it worth the risk.”

Charlie Neely, public relations coordinator for The Mississippi Bar, said the statewide association, which has nearly 7,000 active in-state members, has several programs for promoting a positive image and for educating the public about the law, including:

• “A Lawyer In Every Classroom,” in which Mississippi attorneys from the Young Lawyers Division speak to high school students in classrooms around the state;

• The Mississippi High School Mock Trial, which provides students a better understanding of the American justice system by allowing them to role-play as lawyers, witnesses, plaintiffs and defendants;

• The production of a juror’s handbook and video, distributed to courthouses in the state;

• The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, in which more than 1,800 Mississippi attorneys volunteer their time and expertise to low income citizens via a free legal information hotline open noon to 2 p.m. on weekdays; and

• The Consumer Assistance Program, established in 1994 and the first of its kind in the U.S., which assists consumers and attorneys with problems that arise during the lawyer/client relationship.

“Lawyers are like anybody else,” said Welch. “Five percent of the lawyers give us a black eye. We can only act in a professional way, do our job, and give our time and talents back to the community.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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