Surely it is not breaking news that the Gallup poll shows only 19 percent of respondents find lawyers to be very honest or ethical. In 1976, only 25 percent of those polled found lawyers’ ethics or honesty to be high or very high, and since 1996 that figure has been below 20 percent. Lawyers are only trusted more than members of Congress, insurance and car salespeople, and stockbrokers. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.
Certainly, television shows and movies portray lawyers as vexatious, conniving, contentious and willing to do anything to win. In real life, the public’s experience with lawyers is usually based on an adversarial situation, where people have already reached the end of their rope and turn to lawyers to continue the fight. The client may be looking for a “pit bull” that will tenaciously seek a complete victory.
Laypeople see very little of what most lawyers actually do. They don’t see how the framework of the legal system is largely cooperative and designed to constrain a lawyer to act ethically and honestly or how discovery forces a lawyer to give the other side some self-damning evidence, or how rules of evidence are designed to level the playing field and keep out prejudicially unfair evidence at trial. They don’t understand that lawyers have to grant extensions and compromise on pre-trial disputes, or that Rules of Professional Responsibility restrain lawyers from many actions that could help them win at all costs – such as allowing untruths concerning laws and facts to be brought before a court and jury.
Whatever the reason for the public’s distrust, lawyers need to manage the client relationship from beginning to end. That means defining the terms of the retention accurately and in writing before the agreement is final. Clients have to know exactly what lawyers have agreed to do for them, and they expect that any good attorney will have an accurate, detailed contract or other written document that explains it. Failing to do so is inviting that client to expand the scope of the lawyer’s retention when their case does not go as planned, and a jury will more likely believe the client’s interpretation at a malpractice trial.
In addition, the lawyer must communicate often with the client, documenting those communications, at least with a memo in the file, every time to avoid misunderstandings. Expectations are managed through communication, and in the eyes of a legal malpractice jury, if a communication is not documented, then it never happened. Also, it is important that the lawyer develop an appropriate personal relationship with the client;. a client is much more willing to forgive a lawyer who is not perceived as just another vendor.
Lawyers are not going to sway the Gallup poll results with these recommendations. The public’s viewpoint is situational or seen through the lens of media in extreme adversarial situations. Lawyers, even as a group, can only hope to move the needle a little bit.
However, lawyers can influence clients’ perceptions with each new representation. Usually when a person hires a lawyer, that person believes that lawyer is highly ethical and honest, and the Gallup poll is irrelevant. By following the risk management suggestions above, a lawyer manages that client’s perception for the better … and reduces the risk of dealing with the stereotypes measured in the Gallup poll during jury selection at his own legal malpractice trial.