Infighting between the two branches does little to help lawyers dispel the negative stereotypes plaguing the profession.
You don’t have to look far to see that lawyers have an image problem. Newspaper stories about supposedly outlandish salaries perpetuate the narrative of fat cats. TV shows and films depict lawyers as incompetent (Scrubs), blood-sucking (Jurassic Park) and immoral (Breaking Bad).
This image brings little sympathy to a profession facing genuine challenges such as a government plan to make it compulsory for lawyers to do more work for free.
But while most lawyers would argue that the stereotypes do not reflect the majority of the profession, sometimes lawyers don’t help the situation.
In particular the constant bickering between solicitors and barristers often leads to lawyers themselves adding to a barrage of negativity.
Take two websites that appeared just days apart from each other the other week. One from the Bar Council promotes the idea of direct access barristers to clients, and the other from the Solicitors’ Association of High Court Advocates enables solicitor-advocates to refer work to each other rather than the bar.
I have no problem with the ideas behind the two sites, but what is jarring about them is the way the language used seems to attempt to undermine the other branch of the profession.
It makes little sense to perpetuate a negative image from within.
The solicitor-advocate site complains about how advocates are forced to instruct members of the bar if they cannot do the work themselves, often leading to a ‘disappointing outcome, or later return of papers'. Meanwhile the barrister site promotes itself as allowing clients direct access to barristers ‘without the delay and expense of applying through a third party such as a solicitor.’
Such little digs at sister professions do little to help the overall perception of lawyers. A client reading the bar’s site will have the idea that solicitors are money grabbing and overly expensive reinforced, while the solicitor-advocate site paints barristers as incompetent.
This sort of language threatens to undermine any talk about the need for unity between the two branches.
And when there is already so much negative press facing lawyers, it makes little sense to perpetuate the image from within. It is understandable that when both sides, particularly in the publicly funded sector, are competing for work in a shrinking market there will be a certain level of animosity.
But if lawyers want the public to care that their market is shrinking, they should not be so quick to put the other side down.
Chloe Smith is a Gazette reporter