It is the middle of the summer, and nothing legal stirs, at least in my part of the wood. So I have been reflecting on some of the profundities implicit in the condition of being a lawyer.
No matter the trade or profession, we all suffer from two consequences in our career choices: we are typecast by others, and at the same time we see the world through the eyes of our work. The interesting question is whether the two models meet up. The clear answer is no.
On typecasting, I can’t count the number of times people have said after a comment of mine: ‘Just like a lawyer.’ We are thought of as argumentative, fond of the sound of our own voices, and overpaid. I am sure that dentists are pinned against the wall at cocktail parties while people open their mouths – with crunched peanuts distributed along the teeth – to point out a problem gum. So people think that corporate lawyers who live next door will be able to advise on paternity rights, or that the criminal lawyer in the tennis club will help with a will. If we reply by shrugging our shoulders, it is because we really want to be paid every time we speak, or that we are superior beings unwilling to help. We are stereotyped on a daily basis.
Non-lawyers may say that we lawyers see the world through dollar-sign spectacles. But our view from the inside out interests me more. The first effect I notice of my training is that I have an abnormal interest in legal affairs. The word ‘lawyer’ jumps off the page of any newspaper. Never mind the law reports, I concentrate more when a lawyer commits a murder than on most other news items. When a law firm hits the front page, for instance by being innocently present when an immoral corporation commits financial devilry, I devour the story like an addict. I follow the doings of the more celebrated lawyers – admittedly, there are only one or two – as if they were Justin Bieber.
I see just virtues. Our training, for instance, permits us to acknowledge, if only internally, that there might be another side to an argument. Surely all lawyers have come across a case where the evidence is stacked one way, only for a tiny thread to be found which, when pulled, unravels previous assumptions. Suddenly, the opposite turns out to be true. One of the conditions of the modern world – probably of previous times, too – is that we have fanatics in religion or politics who cannot accept that their worldview is not perfect; dissenters should be killed or pilloried. I always hope that there are no lawyers among them. Osama bin Laden might have become many things in his life, but would he have passed the bar exam?
As a result, lawyers feel the need to challenge most statements. It is built into our training for advocacy and general representation in an adversarial system. So, if you say the surface of the table is hard, then I will automatically say that it is soft – and I am right, because the hardness is just an optical illusion, and we all know that there are dancing molecules on the table, composed of atoms, most of which are full of empty space. Where would the advances of science be without the thought processes of lawyers?
And further, despite there being no well-known lawyer philosophers or writers, I cling to the belief that our training fits us for both callings. We need to spot the essence of a problem through a client’s inarticulate, long-winded or misleading narrative. (Not all clients are like that, of course: some lawyers act for the modern equivalents of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philip Larkin.) Afterwards, we must present this dilemma to the court in a clear and comprehensible way. There should be many more lawyer Dickenses (well, maybe not Dickens, since the court would fall asleep from an excess of sentimentality and minor characters). But you get my meaning. We have the qualities for success in these fields.
There you go, lawyers see the world in a way which makes morality, science, art and philosophy possible. Why is it that other people just don’t see it that way?
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs