As I welcome a new horde of law students to my classroom at Osgoode Hall, I wonder how many of these ambitious and idealistic students were troubled by this summer's roasting of the legal profession.
Macleans Magazine ran a feature on former Bay Street lawyer Philip Slayton's just-released book, Lawyers Gone Bad: Money, Sex And Madness In Canada's Legal Profession, with a front-cover caption reading "Lawyers are rats."
The cover pic showed a group of lawyers making the following confessions: "I pad my bills"; "I'm dishonest"; "I sleep with my clients"; "I take bribes."
Cheerleaders for the profession quickly ran to the rescue, condemning the book as misleading and hysterical, but no matter how hard lawyers protest their bad rap, I think most people buy into the negative publicity.
People hate lawyers. I knew this when I entered the profession, and I know it now. Public opinion polls consistently show that only a small percentage of North Americans believe the profession is characterized by honesty and integrity. Polls also indicate a steady erosion in public trust and confidence in the past 20 to 30 years.
If not for journalists, politicians, car dealers and telemarketers, lawyers would truly be the bottom feeders of our fragile social order.
So this summer's character assassination is old news, and, quite frankly, the Macleans spin is boring and irrelevant. Disdain for lawyers has little to do with overcharging or dishonest or lascivious conduct. Every profession will have some members who corrupt its ideals, but these scandals do not erode public confidence and trust to the degree found with politicians and lawyers.
Firefighters maintain the highest ranking in terms of public support and respect, but even they aren't impervious to scandal. This summer a BC firefighter was charged with five counts of arson for setting grass fires in 2003 - one of the worst wildfire seasons ever in British Columbia.
Of course, occasional aberrant misconduct by a member a respected profession can't undermine its goodwill, but other leading professions have not been as fortunate.
Nurses rank second, even though there have been quite a few horrific incidents in the UK, Canada and the U.S. involving psychotic "mercy killer' nurses. Doctors are sitting pretty in fourth place in the face of a decline in bedside manners and revelations of misleading patients enrolled in clinical trials of experimental drugs.
Teachers come in fifth, and despite many sexual assault and exploitation charges against private school teachers in recent years, the waiting lists for these institutions continue to grow. Even our police maintain a top-10 ranking despite being bombarded with allegations of racial profiling and drug squad corruption.
Most of the high-ranking professions maintain public confidence in the face of periodic condemnation because they are related either to health or safety.
These people also provide relief in emergency situations. Sometimes they act heroically in discharging their obligations.
As passive consumers of health and security, we cannot allow the occasional professional scandal to shake our confidence in these service providers. When the police arrive at my door in response to a 911 call, all the recent articles about profiling and corruption seem academic and unimportant.
The moral shortcomings of individual lawyers are not so readily tolerated or accommodated, because people don't believe that lawyers serve the public interest. This is the real public relations nightmare for the profession.
A dangerous elitism or arrogance has permeated the profession, and this has created such a wide distance between lawyer and layperson that people have simply forgotten that virtually every progressive step taken in the last century on the road to a more just and equal society has been championed or initiated by lawyers.
But instead of being viewed as the champion of the weak and disadvantaged, the modern lawyer is seen as a bulldog, a shark or a gilded mouthpiece.
It doesn't help when the public hears stories of bad lawyers sleeping with clients, padding bills and hiring enforcers to collect bills, but these titillating stories simply distract us from a more pervasive problem: the condescension displayed by lawyers to members of the public and the resulting perception that lawyers don't really give a shit about their clients, the public interest and the pursuit of justice.
Legal professionals act like gatekeepers of an exclusive club, and they have never been taught how to be good hosts when visitors are summoned. No one really wants to visit this club, but sometimes people have no choice but to turn to the law for help. Unfortunately, when they do, they are never allowed to forget that this is not their club and that they're only there at the indulgence of the legal professional, so they had better be prepared to be pushed around, cajoled, insulted and patronized.
The problem with lawyers is not that they are rats, but that they are bullies.