Waking the (Real) Lawyer Within

by Arna Delle-Vergini


This may surprise you but, in the main, people tend to be ambivalent about lawyers. That is, when they are not being downright negative. Certainly, if lawyer jokes are anything to go by, lawyers are greedy; unethical; out for themselves; could sell ice to an Eskimo; are conservative and elitist; and couldn’t lie straight in bed if their lives depended on it. And yet, the minute a person finds themselves in trouble or mired in a dispute, who do they call? A lawyer!

This ambivalence is not restricted to Australia either. Recent research in the US lists lawyers as one of the most despised groups in society. And yet, at the same time, 64% of US parents apparently want their children to be lawyers, or at least to marry a lawyer.

Oh dear oh dear, oh dear! Which is it? Do we hate lawyers? Or do we love them? Or, perhaps, do we have a love-hate relationship with lawyers that we barely understand ourselves?

Where our poor reputation comes from is also anyone’s guess. In reality, lawyers are at the coalface of social justice and law reform. Nor are they fiscal bloodsuckers.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, in the 2007-2008 financial year Australian lawyers spent 955,400 hours undertaking pro bono work. That amounts to $238.2m worth in free legal services. FREE legal services! I’d challenge any other profession to match that!

And yet, despite this reality, the Law Institute of Victoria recently felt moved to launch the “Reputation Project”. Designed to inform members of the public about the true nature of lawyering and to remind them of the positive contribution lawyers actually make to the community, the project is an obvious attempt to improve the public perception of lawyers in our community. This is laudable. But I wonder if it is a little misguided. Is the public really ignorant of the good lawyers do, or are they just happily recalcitrant in their ambivalence?

Is it possible that people are ambivalent about lawyers because when the proverbial hits the fan, they are largely (painfully) dependent on them? This is somewhat reminiscent of adolescents’ dependency on their parents. You know… “Get out of my life but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the Mall” type of dependency.  Or maybe people just love to hate lawyers (followed, no doubt quite closely, by politicians and journalists) because people must have ‘enemies’ or life gets rather too boring.

As fascinating a topic of public ambivalence about lawyers is, I have a much keener interest in how emerging lawyers develop resilience when the public perception of them is so different from their lived experience. I can well recall, as an emerging lawyer, feeling very confused at the simultaneous mixture of hostility and admiration I experienced from non-lawyers. At dinner-parties everyone had a lawyer joke and yet, privately it was very clear that these same people accorded me a higher status than my peers because of my occupation. This simply didn’t make sense.

I never worked out what lies beneath this ambivalence but I did come to understand that it could actually act as a strong catalyst to promoting resilience in new lawyers. The stark incongruity between a new lawyer’s lived experience of lawyering and what they come to understand is the public’s perception of them, can actually promote deeper reflection about who they are and what the precise worth of their work is. Am I what they say I am? And if not, what am I? When this reflection is supported by dialogue with colleagues and mentors, it certainly has the potential to develop and enrich a lawyer’s perception of themselves.

The process of ultimately rejecting an external definition of the Self in preference for your “discovered self” lies at the heart of any journey of self-discovery, whether personal or professional. And this is a journey. It is a process that takes time.  Don’t allow it to become unnecessarily thwarted by adopting a defensive attitude and refusing to engage with it at all. Rather, embrace the caricature – prop it up in the corner of your house somewhere and look at it regularly. Compare and contrast everything you learn about being a lawyer with it, and you will quickly discover little resemblance between the two. When you stare at it full in the face like this, you will come to see it for what it is – a chimera, a largely inaccurate daydream, from which you too must eventually wake.