(About a 5 minute read)
“There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief — resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.” — The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “Notes for a Law Lecture” (July 1, 1850), p. 82.
If you had just met my cousin, Ed, around 1975 or so, when he was at the height of his career, you might easily have formed a first impression of him as a former Boy Scout who had, however, never entirely left the Scouts. In appearances, he had that air to him: An innocent man, if ever there was one.
Of course, in truth, he was among the most morally corrupt men of any professional class that I’ve known. His career was not merely that of a lawyer, but of a political lobbyist on both the state and national levels. Least anyone harbor illusions about the essence of that noble occupation, Cousin Ed’s job was to bribe people, and he excelled at it.
Around age 18 or so, I attended one of Ed’s parties where I witnessed an eye-opening (for me) conversation. Ed was speaking to a small group of his closest friends — a group of at least moderately powerful bureaucrats for the most part: Men who ran departments of the State Government. Naturally, the conversation was mere shop-talk to Ed and them.
On the other hand, I was still naive enough to find it hard to follow. The last thing I expected was to hear how Ed had recently bribed a key US Senator, the head of the Senate’s powerful Finance Committee, to vote to deregulate the Savings and Loan industry. Although the Senator was not only a Democrat, but known as one of the nation’s more liberal Democrats, Ed had persuaded him to go along with Reagan’s eventually disastrous, crisis-causing, deregulation.
Now Ed wasn’t really bragging to his friends that evening. Instead, he was merely alerting them to the news the industry was about to be deregulated, and so they should ASAP get into positions to make their fortunes.
The bribe was, to my mind, ingenious: A huge chunk of it was in the form of stock in a certain S&L — stock that was bound to soar in value if and when the Senator voted to deregulate. His fortune was made — if only he carried through on his promise. And leaving nothing to chance, Ed had also greased the palms of two or three of the Senator’s key aides.
But to me the fascinating thing was Ed’s manner in telling his friends the news. There was not a hint in his voice nor demeanor that he was talking about anything beyond the day’s weather. My shock wasn’t so much from the corruption of bribing a US Senator, but from the casualness of it.
That evening, I formed almost on the spot the hasty and unfortunate opinion that lawyers routinely corrupted the democratic processes. That is, I naively blamed them for it, as if no one would bribe senators were lawyers somehow banished. And for years that was the bottom line for me.
Now I confess to being slow in every way but in bed. In bed, I will proudly defend my impressive life-long record of reliably performing my “services” with lightening-fast efficiency. So it took me a couple decades before I formed a more informed and honest opinion of lawyers. Much before then, I really didn’t look into it.
The change began with my reading an article on the Gaza Strip in which the author pointed out in some detail the consequences of the Strip’s lack of any legal means whereby the people could settle their disputes. Naturally, the disputes just didn’t evaporate simply because there were no courts, no judges, and no lawyers to resolve them.
No, what had actually happened was the people had fallen back on their families and on violence. In effect, they had returned to the vendetta system.
Which makes sense, if you think about it. What other recourse did they have other than to organize into trusted family-based groups, and — at least ultimately — resort to arms to settle things?
The more I thought about it, the more I came to grasp how lawyers, along with the rest of the legal infrastructure, are about all that stands between a civilization and its reversion to anarchy and most likely barbarism — for what family gang is going to stop at merely settling scores when it pays off under those circumstances to not only settle them, but to settle them in cruel and extreme ways designed to warn and intimidate others into not messing with them?
Like most bad ideas, the notion lawyers are necessarily dishonest is a persistent one. It has been around for far longer than Lincoln’s day — Shakespeare makes mention of it when he has “Dick the Butcher” propose to “…kill all the lawyers” in Henry VI, in order of course, to bring about a better country.
But would such a country most likely be better?
As for my cousin, he wasn’t all bad. At one point in my life, he gave me some of the wisest advice I’ve ever taken. He pointed out in forceful terms — forceful enough to get me to actually listen even at a young age — that I would never have a chance to be happy in life if I followed through with my plan to go into politics.
“Paul, I hear you say you want to help clean up politics, make it better. That’s a noble goal, and I believe you would do everything you could to stay honest and achieve your goal.
“But you need to realize before you make a huge mistake: Politics is a filthy, dirty business. It won’t ever change from that, no matter what you yourself do to reform it. You will be an ant trying to chew down a mountain.
“In the end, it will only commit your soul to living hell, just like it’s committed to hell almost every soul who has come before you. I know.”