Legal Profession Is Low On Public Confidence Scale

May 3, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — It appears public confidence in lawyers hasn’t improved in recent years because they’re not doing a good job of developing and maintaining communication with clients.

It also appears there is general misunderstanding and mistrust of lawyers’ fees.

Those were among the findings of a national survey conducted by Leo J. Shapiro & Associates of Chicago on behalf of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation.

Sara Parikh, of Shapiro & Associates, designed and managed the study, which involved two consumer surveys and 10 consumer focus groups in five U.S. markets conducted between April 2001 and January.

Of nine professions and institutions included in the survey, lawyers ranked eighth on the public’s confidence scale. The news media ranked the lowest.

According to the survey, Americans have conflicting feelings about lawyers: They like them and dislike them. 

On the downside, respondents criticized lawyers as being “greedy, manipulative and corrupt,” and said the legal profession does a poor job of self-regulation. 

Their criticism extended across the board to every type of lawyer, from criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors and public defenders to personal injury, divorce and corporate lawyers.

Though consumers acknowledged that it’s a few bad attorneys that give the legal profession a bad name, they blame the profession for not policing itself better, Parikh observed.

Of all respondents, 69 percent felt lawyers were more interested in making money than in serving their clients; 73 percent felt lawyers spend too much time finding technicalities to get criminals released; and 74 percent felt lawyers are more interested in winning than in seeing justice served.

Consumers also are somewhat suspicious of the close connections lawyers have to politics, government, the judiciary, law enforcement and big business.

Parikh summarized that Americans are uncomfortable with those connections because they see them as giving lawyers a degree of power in society that enables them to both play and shape the legal system. 

Among the general complaints were that lawyers are not up front about their fees, they charge too much for their services, take too long to resolve matters and fail to return client phone calls. Some 40 percent of all respondents said lawyers do not keep their clients informed of the progress of their case. Of all criticisms raised, the greatest percentage involved lawyers’ fees.

More than half of those surveyed indicated that concerns about legal fees, about how to pick a good lawyer and about whether or not they really needed a lawyer had kept them from hiring an attorney when they could have used one.

On the upside, among consumers who had used a lawyer in the past five years, 76 percent said they were satisfied with the service — 58 percent “very satisfied” and 18 percent “somewhat satisfied.”

The same group felt most lawyers are knowledgeable about the law and interested in serving their clients.

The same people who had negative perceptions of lawyers also described them as “well educated, intelligent, knowledgeable, hardworking, aggressive, outgoing, well-spoken and confident.”

Respondents blamed the media for perpetuating negative perceptions of lawyers by focusing on high profile, controversial cases, such as the O.J. Simpson case, that capture the public’s attention and feed preexisting beliefs about lawyers manipulating both truth and the legal system.

Respondents also indicated that lawyers themselves contribute to those negative perceptions through advertising. Legal advertising geared toward the general public tends to be “unprofessional, over-promising, overly dramatic and targeted to vulnerable people,” respondents said.

Asked to rate possible ways to improve lawyers’ reputations, respondents indicated lawyers could:

  • Educate the public about how to handle common legal problems (81 percent)

  • Do a better job of communicating with clients (80 percent)

  • Do a better job of policing and regulating themselves (78 percent)

  • Do a better job of explaining fees to clients (69 percent)

  • Do more public service/pro-bono work (63 percent)

  • Lower fees (57 percent)

  • Be more selective about the cases accepted (46 percent)

  • Change the way they advertise (45 percent)

The challenge, Parikh observed, is to make lawyers more accessible and less threatening to consumers.

Robert Clifford, chair of the ABA Litigation Section, said the research indicates lawyers have to start being better communicators and have to start tending more closely to their client relationships. 

“Lawyers have to be taught the importance of lawyer-client relationships in law school, and they have an obligation to talk and to work with the public to enhance understanding of our justice system,” he said. 

Clifford also said lawyers could do a better job of making consumer information and materials for the public more accessible and telling the public more about their public service activities.

Dale Ann Iverson, president of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, said she wasn’t surprised by the public perceptions revealed in the study. 

“Much of the programming we do for the community has as one of its goals countering those perceptions,” she said.

The local bar is committed to changing those perceptions “by our walk as opposed to by our talk,” she added. 

“The issues of the legal system and the justice system are very complicated, so talking is hard on a number of levels. I think people want to know: Do lawyers walk their talk? The projects we’re doing to involve lawyers in helping community really evidence that.”

The local bar runs a number of programs that are directly responsive to the challenge of making local attorneys more accessible and less threatening, Iverson said.

The bar is deeply involved in raising as much as it can for West Michigan Legal Aid, which provides free legal service for people who can’t afford help on critical legal issues.

“We also work within the bar to challenge individual members and law firms to give more and more volunteer time,” she added.

For years the GRBA has had a lawyer referral service that matches a person with a lawyer in a selected area of expertise and offers a half-hour consultation for $25.

The bar’s new Legal Assistance Center, which just opened in the county court house, was created to help people help themselves solve their own legal problems by providing legal information that enables them to do a better job of representing themselves.

The bar is now housing the lawyer referral service in the center.

People often identify their problem as a legal one and it turns out to be one better addressed by some other human services agency, Iverson noted.  

Since the Legal Assistance Center is in partnership with about 40 community agencies, she said it can help the person identify the agency that can provide better assistance.

As for individual lawyers and their client relationships, Iverson said the study suggests it might be advantageous for the bar to sponsor some educational seminars that teach lawyers how to do a better job of communicating with clients.

“I think one of the underlying causes probably is that people do not see a diverse lawyer; they probably see mostly white men,” Iverson observed. “One of the ways we can make lawyers more accessible and less threatening to consumers is to make sure there is a range of choices among lawyers — that there are women, older people, younger people, African Americans, other people of color and disabled lawyers.”

She said the bar’s clerkship program, its career days program and its affiliation with Floyd Skinner Bar Association, the local African American bar, are among the ways GRBA helps foster diversity at all levels of legal employment.

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