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No longer a laughing matter despite never-ending stream of lawyer jokes

Attorneys remain concerned about profession’s image

Okay, enough already with the lawyer jokes. There are jokes about all professions, but lawyers seem to have an overabundance. However, they aren’t laughing anymore and many of them are concerned with their image as a profession.

Misconduct by a few, huge fees in highly publicized cases, legal advertising, the adversarial nature of the court system and even Shakespeare are listed as reasons that might have something to do with the plethora of lawyer jokes.

The associate dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, Ron Rychlak, said, “Once upon a time lawyers went along with the jokes, and now they realize that has an impact on popular culture’s perception of them. The lawyers in our state are very professional and such good people most of them roll with the jokes but that image is undeserved.”

Enough already, indeed

Rychlak, who’s been on the faculty since 1987, noticed about 10 years ago that lawyers themselves stopped telling the jokes about their profession. He says lawyers feel they’ve been kicked around unfairly even though they rolled with the punches.

“The majority of people are happy with their lawyers, but they don’t like the ones on the other side,” he said, “and people get mad at new legislation that’s enacted and blame it on lawyers, but legislation is reflective of the populace.”

There are currently 600 students enrolled in the law school at Ole Miss, and Rychlak affirms that ethics classes are taught. According to Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar Association (MBA), there are 6,000 lawyers licensed to practice in the state.

MBA president Richard C. Roberts of Jackson says this country has the best legal system in the universe, and he thinks the public is starting to recognize that. He also feels the image of lawyers is better in smaller communities where individual lawyers are known.

“Lawyers are trained to be problem solvers and problem preventers,” he said. “We have more opportunities to help people, on a number of different levels than any other profession. People come to us with their problems, seeking our help, advice, counsel and judgement. They rely on our skills and abilities to help them.”

Although he does a lot of divorce work in his own practice, Roberts says he keeps a lot of marriages together, too. It’s all part of trying to solve problems.

“Everything doesn’t have to be a fight,” he said. “Both sides need to be resolved.”

He feels the manner in which lawyers help clients shapes the way the individual lawyer and ultimately the legal profession is perceived by the general public.

“Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of people have a high regard for their own lawyer,” he said. “It’s those ‘other lawyers’ they don’t like. In large measure, this is a direct result of our adversarial system. Lawyers are advocates seeking to advance the causes of our clients. In most cases, we are opposing the cause of someone else, also represented by a lawyer.”

Gulfport attorney Dean Holleman says a positive image for the profession will come through lawyers doing the best they can and not just doing something for money.

“It’s all about integrity. There are a lot of things I choose not to do,” he said. “The focus is to right a wrong. It’s about helping people.”

In general practice with his brother, Tim, and two other attorneys, Holleman says they were taught well by their late father, Boyce Holleman, who made them proud to be in the legal profession.

Another Gulf Coast attorney, Donald C. Dornan Jr., feels a person’s image of lawyers is based on personal experience. If that lawyer is confident, trustworthy and competent, that goes a long way toward a positive image.

A former president of the MBA, he said, “Lawyers can elevate the image of the profession by continuing to do good things in the community that they’ve done for many years, some of which gets overlooked, and by being trustworthy counselors for their clients.”

John Harral, a practicing attorney in Gulfport for 30 years, feels strongly that the profession’s image is undeserved for the most part.

“Most lawyers adhere to ethical rules, and we strenuously regulate ourselves,” he said. “The public sees lawyers representing criminals and think the lawyer, by providing the counsel a person is entitled to receive under the constitution, condones the crime that was committed.”

A past commissioner of the State Bar and past president of the Harrison County Bar Association, Harral is dedicated to improving the profession and feels that attorneys are by and large an ethical group of people who are greatly involved in their communities.

“If you look around, you will find a lot of lawyers involved in all types of charitable organizations that you might not find in other professions,” he said. “It’s a very noble profession.”

As for the legal profession’s advertising, which the Supreme Court says is protected speech, Harral thinks too much advertising is not a good thing and he would rather not have it.

He says the famous quote from Shakespeare to “first kill all the lawyers” is taken out of context. In context, it means that those who want to accomplish anarchy must do away with the lawyers, who are society’s protectors of law and order.

Kathleen Smiley, who heads the largest female law firm in the state, thinks it’s a shame the image has become such a focus and points out the good that has been done by the profession.

“Trial lawyers are responsible for warning labels on products and keeping corporate America honest,” she said. “We try to keep them in check and go out on a limb to represent people who can’t otherwise afford legal services.”

Smiley, a graduate of the Stetson College of Law in St. Petersburg, Fla., said she tries to educate people who come to her and feels a responsibility for their well-being.

“I’m against frivolous lawsuits and will tell people they don’t have a case if that’s what I think is best,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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