Attorneys and accountants have long been two of the most respected professionals in the country. But with the accounting scandals of Enron, WorldCom and others, and a great deal of publicity about “jackpot justice,” public perceptions of the two professions have become jaded.
Accountants and attorneys in Mississippi are taking steps to enhance their reputations.
“For a number of years the profession has been participating in an image enhancement program through the state societies and the AICPA (American Institute of CPAs) to educate the public on the many opportunities available to someone who earns a CPA certificate,” said Jack O. Coppenbarger, executive director of the Mississippi Society of CPAs. “With the business failures of the past few years, that image program has now been revised to emphasize a regaining of trust in the profession. CPAs have always been the most trusted business advisors and time will heal the damage of what has happened in recent years.”
Coppenbarger said the Mississippi Society of CPAs has participated in the image program through radio advertising with spots prepared by the AICPA and underwriting on Public Radio.
“We hope to continue that in the years to come and incorporate the message of the limitless opportunities for someone who earns the CPA certificate,” he said.
The Mississippi Bar is also working to help the public realize the good attorneys do.
“I’ve covered this state from top to bottom, up one side and down the other,” said Don Dornan, president of the Mississippi Bar, an attorney who practices in Biloxi. “I have met with attorneys all over the state. I’m convinced the overwhelming number of attorneys in our state want a good image, want to be professional, and want to make the right decisions when ethical choices confront them.”
One of the things the Mississippi Bar has done to educate the public about the profession is publication of a brochure called “Nine Truths About Lawyers.”
“There are misconceptions about lawyers,” Dornan said. “In this day and age, it is fashionable for people to engage in lawyer bashing. Within the past year, some pretty harsh voices from inside and outside of our state have called into question the integrity of our judicial system. When I speak to lawyer groups, I tell them that if every lawyer would serve the clients first, our judicial system second and the legal profession third, there would be no basis for criticism.”
One of the areas people complain about tainting the legal profession is lawyer advertising. But advertising is protected by the First Amendment.
“At the Mississippi Bar we discourage lawyers from gaudy and tasteless self promotion,” Dornan said. “But under the First Amendment, really all we can do in terms of regulations is address the problem when a lawyer’s ad is either false or misleading.
“In this commercial age, lawyer ads are something that are just a part of everyday life. They don’t always communicate a favorable impression.”
The debate over tort reform has also reflected badly on the profession with such polarization on both sides of the issues that the public may end up unhappy with either of the extremes. The image of the state’s legal climate can affect how people perceive attorneys who practice in the state.
“Mississippi is not really a hotbed of litigation like it has been portrayed,” Dornan said. “Most of the counties and juries in Mississippi are very, very conservative. The majority of the counties in this state have never had a $1-million verdict, or even close. So we think there have been some wrong perceptions created in the media that Mississippi is a place of jackpot justice. It is not.”
Dornan said there are a handful of counties in Mississippi where large verdicts have been awarded, and some of those have been overturned on appeal. But very rarely is there any media coverage when the case gets overturned.
“You hear the sensational verdict, but the public doesn’t get to know as much about how the system works if that verdict was excessive and an appellant court overturns it,” Dornan said. “The public in and out of the state doesn’t become aware of that.”
Surveys have shown that while it is common for people to criticize lawyers — lawyer jokes can be quite popular — in fact, most people have a high opinion of their own lawyer. An American Bar Association survey showed that a majority of people polled had a poor opinion of the legal profession in general and felt lawyers were more interested in their fees than in helping their clients. But more than 60% were very satisfied with their own lawyers.
“What that illustrates is people criticize the system and bash lawyers,” Dornan said. “But when they have a problem and need a lawyer, they are always willing to embrace the legal profession.”
Dornan said that the Mississippi Bar strongly encourages lawyers to set a good example, one client at a time.
“We can change perceptions by doing good work and quality, professional representation of each client,” he said. “We have the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyer Project where lawyers donated several million dollars worth of free legal time in the past year for people indigent and unable to afford legal services. We conduct ethics and professionalism seminars. And every year we go to each of the two law schools in Mississippi on the first day of law school and give a presentation on ethics and professionalism. On the last day of law school, they get it again. By then they are graduating law students and it means more to them.”
Gail Gettis, public relations coordinator for The Ad Agency in Byram, said working to improve an attorney’s image poses quite a challenge because so many people see them as highly paid greedy individuals that work only to get other people’s money.
“Perhaps it is because attorneys often try cases with, of course, opposing sides where someone loses something or is guilty of some crime,” Gettis said. “Regardless, the lawyer is the one who is often held responsible for a person’s loved one being penalized, or the bad guy getting off.
“No matter how bad things are for the client, or for the client’s family that went into debt to afford legal representation, the lawyer always walks away with a nice little sum of money. Win or lose, the lawyer gets his. Some people are angered when their lawyer is difficult to reach, won’t return calls or respond quickly to matters that the client feels are important to his or her case. Of course, some people think that because they pay hefty attorney’s fees, they have exclusive rights to his time and efforts. Wrong!”
Gettis said advertising alone isn’t enough to give the public better impressions of attorneys. More than advertising, public relations can be effective for attorneys and other professionals that are often perceived as cold, greedy and bordering on low morals, she said.
“Even if the public assumes that these professionals conduct business in a professional, efficient manner and operate within the law (because they have to), they may still get the sense that they come to work in a particular area, but are not rooted in the community,” Gettis said.
“The best public relations efforts would include involvement in community events and activities, especially that support charitable organizations. The firm or partners should not just provide advertising, monetary donations or sponsorships for events, but have people at all levels of the company actively participate in community activities. They should volunteer services — though contributions, donations and sponsorships are always welcome. Sometimes, they just need to go a step beyond that. People should see that these professionals are willing to work for a worthw
cause — not just themselves.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.