This article was first published in Private Client Adviser on 3 March 2014 and is reproduced by kind permission (www.privateclientadviser.co.uk).
In my blog post, Law Degrees and Legal Fees, I wrote about the positive initial reaction when you tell people you are studying law or training to be a solicitor. I hadn’t appreciated that this initial reaction did not entirely translate into reality. There are considerable disparities between the public perception of the aspiration and the actuality.
Why don’t people like solicitors? Is it because of the old adage that ‘lawyer’ sounds like, or is synonymous with ‘liar’? Is it because of that ever perpetuated rumour that we make our living out of lying convincingly to protect fiendish people? I know I wasn’t the only person asked throughout my legal education countless times “but how could you defend someone you knew had committed murder?” or some other equally hilarious question.
The first time the perception ever personally affected me was only about a month or so into my first seat of my training contract. I was in the planning department at the time and was discussing some aspects of a Section 106 Agreement with a member of the local planning authority. The queries I was making on my client’s behalf were innocuous to say the least, (hatching or wording or some such), however when I politely requested that she took instructions soonest, I was tersely told that I should bear in mind that, in our respective jobs, she and I wore very different ‘hats’. Presumably due to my ensuing confused silence, she warmed to her subject, informing me that her ‘hat’ was a nicer and much more flowery hat than the one I, (as a solicitor) wore. I employed my best faux laugh and wound up the call. When I relayed the comment to my then supervisor, he just laughed at my incredulity and said, “Get used to it”.
Maybe I caught her on a bad morning, maybe I had wronged her in a past life, maybe her partner had recently absconded with a planning solicitor, or maybe, she, like the rest of the world, blindly hates solicitors. All I know is that since then, I have been subjected to a few other (all unsolicited(!)) insights into my choice of career, all equally as baffling and usually, insulting.
A common misconception amongst my friends appears to be that a solicitor’s charge out rate is synonymous with their salary. Even my own sister berated me for being a snake when I explained the concept of ‘green time’ and ‘red time’ to her. It didn’t prevent her from engaging us when she needed conveyancing advice, tail between legs. And that is the truth, nearly everyone needs a solicitor at some point in their life, not just serial killers.
There are bad apples in every profession, not just ours. So why is this prolific dislike for solicitors so well-established? And does the world really believe that all solicitors are criminal barristers? I know my mother does. Almost every answer to a question about work involves me saying “because I’m not Judge John Deed”.
My best friend often tells me that my pedantic tendencies will serve to accelerate me towards my inevitable demise, being eaten by my hoard of cats, who presumably by this point will also be my closest and only friends.The trouble is, I know I’m not pedantic because I’m a lawyer. Rather, it is the profession that serves as a useful cover for my anally retentive nature. Perhaps personalities seek out the solicitor guise in order to hide our own foibles within its dark and stereotypical folds. Anyway, in my opinion being pedantic pays. It means someone sees loopholes, options and outcomes which is a trait I would want my own solicitor to possess.
Maybe after all this analysis, it is just the ‘sounds like’ theory of lawyer and liar that triggers the alarm bells of the public subconscious. It would explain the rap that bankers get.