Friday, 25 March 2011

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves?

It's a big question and it's been asked by the SYLA and WS as the starting point for their writing competition.

While I don't plan on entering the competition, the question did get me thinking . . . .

Do lawyers really help people or do they just help themselves? To me the question suggests that while lawyers think they're helping people, or tell themselves they're helping people, in fact they might not be. Or maybe they know full well what they're doing and like to present to the public the face of respectability when they're really a bunch of mercenaries. A collection of sharp suited, quick talking, arrogant, over educated, overpaid profiteers hell bent on squeezing every last penny from the difficult situations which they are called on to resolve?

Wait a minute, surely they're not all like that? Isn't it a bit harsh to be grouping lawyers together like that? Would we find ourselves asking the same question of another profession? Lets apply the question to another group who have to train for many years to be allowed to practice and see how well it fits . . . .

Do Architects really help people or do they just help themselves? Surely they're not interested in helping people to live in the home of their dreams! All they want is the big fat cheque at the end of the job and the respect of their peers! It seems to me like the question simplifies things a little too much.

The motivation of different individuals for entering a profession can vary considerably, as such their eventual area of practice and method of doing business will vary. In answering the question with reference to lawyers, is it fair to draw comparisons between a newly qualified procurator fiscal (criminal prosecutor), working for the state, with an ideological stance about keeping criminals off the streets and helping society, with a media lawyer who has 25 years of experience in helping celebrities sue newspapers and newspapers to know where to draw the line when printing gossip?

Surely there are as many different types of lawyer as there are types of legal work and the choice of field may have some correlation with whether or not the lawyer is interested in helping other people or their own selfish ends. It's not too difficult to imagine a child, with a child's understanding of the world wanting to be a prosecutor, locking up the baddies, or being an employment lawyer, helping people to keep their job or be treated fairly an employer. What's a little harder to imagine (for me at least) is that same child wanting to be a tax law specialist, coming up with clever ways for large companies to decrease their tax liability.

There are many examples of lawyers whose careers demonstrate a desire to help people, I need look no further than Glasgow, my home town, where we have the Legal Services Agency and the Govan Law Centre. LSA provides free legal advice in a number of areas along with having a dedicated mental health team and refugee department. This is a law firm working with vulnerable groups day in day out, it's hard for me to see how lawyers in this environment could be accused of not really helping people and just being out for themselves.

How about the often demonised, ambulance chasing, personal injury lawyer? Surely they're just out to make a few quid from the suffering of their clients at the expense of the poor sod who caused the injury? Maybe so but I'm sure their clients aren't too bothered when they receive their compensation cheques!

Is it not the case that any successful relationship (business or otherwise) should be mutually beneficial? I certainly think so. While the lawyer may always have to focus on billable hours, ultimately billable hours means time spent working for the client, which translates to helping the client achieve their goal. Surely this comfortably creates, in most situations, a win win, whereby the lawyer helps herself by helping her client.

These are just my initial thoughts, feel free to comment,


  1. I think you have hit the nail on the head here. It is so easy to simplify and think that there are only two possibilities. The truth is gray, and society is making it harder and harder to live in that gray zone. Many, many lawyers exist to hep others, and many, many lawyers (though in my estimation fewer) exist only to help themselves. And in between there are people doing both. Thanks for posting this. These are important questions to consider.

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