Thursday, March 8, 2007

This Ain't Your Father's Atticus Finch

To borrow an idiotic phrase from The Corner, there's been quite a kerfuffle over the behavior of a number of law school students who have been acting like on-line jackasses. I'm not particularly interested in dissecting their behavior. That's been done well elsewhere.

What I do want to discuss is a comment by Res Publica, someone for whom I have great respect. Res says:

I mean…I know that as soon as I say this, a million people are going to jump my ass about how I’m overgeneralizing, but…if you live in America, don’t you really know, down in your heart of hearts, that most lawyers are assholes? And most doctors, too? It’s the nature of their training. It’s attractive to type-A men (aka “assholes”). Then you have the money, which attracts the greedy (aka “assholes”). Then, too, there’s the prestige that attracts climbers (aka “assholes”). Of course there are exceptions, and plenty of ‘em, but I’d stand by my assertion that jerks are over-represented in the professions. And don’t even get me started about MBA programs.
I don't know that many doctors, but the ones I do know are primarily family practitioners who nowadays feel more like HMO wage-slaves instead of professionals. I do know a lot of lawyers, though, and I don't find their asshole quotient any higher than most other segments of society. In fact, many of my lawyer acquaintances play large roles in local government, nonprofit organizations, mentoring programs, and all kinds of other things. They also spend surprising amounts of time doing their job for free for people who can't afford it; sometimes on high-profile death sentence kinds of things, much more often just helping out people who are trying to cut through a corporate or governmental bureaucracy or buy a house or fight a traffic ticket or start a business. While some of this is attributable to marketing, it's also because community service and pro bono work are expectations of the profession.

There are plenty of asshole lawyers. There are plenty of asshole truckers and secretaries and professors too. The difference is that lawyers are typically being paid to be adversarial. That's nice if you happen to be the client (although being overly aggressive doesn't do a client any favors), but it's not so nice if you're on the other side.

When a layperson is involved in something that involves lawyers, there's usually at least one attorney involved who is representing someone else. In litigation there are depositions and counterclaims and what seems like endless reams of paper being exchanged. In transactional work there are threats and bickering and what seems like endless reams of paper being exchanged. By the time the whole nightmare is over, and paid for, most sane people are totally repelled by the legal system and everyone connected with it. Hence, the idea that lawyers are assholes at a higher rate than say, ice cream shop proprietors.

What sometimes gets lost is how soul-crushing this can be. A lawyer's job is to tell people, "Give me your problems and I'll make them mine." If things go badly, it's the lawyer's fault. If they go well, the client is still mad about having to pay the bill. A friend told me when he retired from practice, "I didn't even know how much I hated it until I quit. It's like yard work; until the lawnmower gets turned off, you forget how loud it is."

I'm not trying to gin up sympathy for my attorney friends. People choose the profession willingly, many of them make a good living at it, and plenty of them quit when it gets to be too much. I'm certainly not trying to excuse the behavior of the pinheads whose behavior started this whole line of discussion. My worry is that linking their behavior to their career plans overlooks what I believe are more likely reasons for their actions; poor upbringings, herd mentality, the power of anonymity.

We regularly see online stupidity and meanness of the kind exhibited by these lawyer wannabees by people with no connection to any profession. Flame-wars go bizarrely out of control and people threaten to reveal the names of anonymous bloggers and half of those involved are clearly incapable of finding or holding regular employment. Even the virulent racism and sexism aren't that unusual. Spend some time in the comment sections of right-wing blogs and you can find plenty of that.

What makes this instance especially appalling is the undertone of threat and sexual predation aimed at specific individuals by young men who are supposed to be learning the importance of serving others. It's creepy and wrong and bullying. If they act like this as lawyers, they're at risk of losing clients, jobs, and even their licenses. They'd deserve it.


Anonymous said...

"Hence, the idea that lawyers are assholes at a higher rate than say, ice cream shop proprietors."

I recall an ice cream shop proprietor of my youth that was particularly *assholey*. That proprietor probably left a bigger skid mark on my soul than did any lawyers I have known and I've known more lawyers than ice cream shop proprietors.

Righteous Bubba said...

I would now like to thank my lawyer for saving me a hell of a lot of money not through "winning" but for billing me in a way that was exceptionally humane.

Anonymous said...

As I said over at 3B!, it's not just lawyers. A fair amount of young men talk like this. Sad, but true. It speaks to the failures of parenting and society.

Anonymous said...

AG's point that it's more a "man thing" than a "lawyer thing" is well-taken. I still think that the classical "professions" attract more Type A personalities, though.

Snag said...

I think there is a relationship between the professions and their attraction (or at least tolerability) for the Type-A individual, in part because the education is such a dull, repetitive grind. More important, the professions were also been historically attractive to immigrants, particularly Jews, who viewed them as a way to achieve success outside of the closed WASP business community. If there's a bigger collection of Type-A personalities on the planet than children of first-generation immigrants, I don't want to see it. And I mean that in a complimentary way.

Anonymous said...

I worked for several lawyers over a period of about 8 years (secretary, office mgr.) Most were fairly nice guys with the occasional jerk for seasoning. The problem is, as you said (more or less): nobody (except rich people) goes to a lawyer because they're happy. You go if you're in trouble, or somebody died, or you're getting divorced, or you got hit by another car (or you hit somebody). You're paying the lawyer to handle really bad problems. Only a rich person can afford to go to a lawyer when they don't have anything to worry about except tying up more money.

Snag said...

Tehanu, that's a good way of putting it.