Jokes about lawyers can be pretty harsh. Has the profession really drifted that far from protecting the innocent and providing justice for all? If not, then what do the good lawyers do and does it pay the bills?
In the section headed ‘Our Values’ on the website of personal injury solicitors Thompsons, is a surprising sentence: "We do not maximise income for our partners in line with what they would be capable of earning in commercial practice. Instead, our partners are paid a fair share for their work in providing high quality legal services for modest costs."
Providing the best possible legal advice for the lowest fee doesn’t exactly sound like the lawyers we all recognise from TV. Surely they should be wearing sharp suits, doing a lot of shouting and have big offices full of attractive staff.
Thompsons are one of the few UK firms that make a point of representing trade unions. For many becoming a lawyer to make sure people are safe at work, that employees aren’t exploited and that the guys in charge are acting within the law is what the profession is all about, fighting for justice. It’s probably not as well paid as being a top celebrity lawyer but it might be a lot more exciting. It can mean going up against big businesses and trying to defend the little guy. If that doesn’t sound exciting, remember it’s what Tom Cruise does in the film A Few Good Men, which gave us the immortal line "you want the truth, you can’t handle the truth."
The positive face of the law isn’t just representing employee rights either. Some lawyers go as far as representing the planet. Michael Rudd is a partner at the law firm Bird and Bird, he explains "As law firms we have a responsibility to the broader community which requires us to undertake work for those who can’t necessary afford to pay it. We do a lot of work for climate change and often for businesses involved in climate change that make money, but we feel that we should also support those who don’t."
Pro bono law is a big part of the positive face of the legal profession. Literally meaning ‘for good’, this area of the law can cover everything from huge law firms representing charities to individuals volunteering their time with community projects.
Organisations like, the free legal advice and probono charity, LawWorks make a point of focusing their expertise where it’s most needed. This doesn’t just mean the right people benefit from it, it also means volunteering lawyers get good experience that’s relevant to them.
As Kathie Clark, head of business development at LawWorks, explains "We screen the applications that come to us, so we can make sure that a) the person who asks for help has a genuine legal case and b) that they are genuinely in need and aren’t eligible for legal aid. That means lawyers offering their services don’t have their time wasted." It also means that those lawyers are getting real experience and not putting in effort where it isn’t useful.
But it’s not all hard graft with only a spotless conscience as a reward. Being a ‘good lawyer’ can give you experiences that are completely out of reach of the average graduate on a training contract.
Often international travel is the reward for being at the top of your profession. For lawyers interested in helping the less fortunate, it’s an everyday occurrence. Despite the details of the law varying greatly from country to country, many of the practicalities stay the same, meaning lawyers can often offer their skills to poorer communities abroad without the need to completely retrain.
Tim Soutar volunteered in Tanzania, giving legal advice and advice on teaching the law to local people. "We started off in Tanzania with the local law society, continuously giving ad hoc legal education seminars, with Lawyers from firms giving seminars on various topic," Tim explains. "They were very popular, but there was always a problem of sustainability. So instead what we are doing now is training faculty and staff in the law school who can then teach with minimal further assistance."
Ultimately, the law is a profession that needs a lot of different people to do a lot of different things. Those who can’t afford a lawyer or don’t know they need one shouldn’t suffer, but neither should those who can. Deciding who you want to represent has to be a personal decision.
Nobody should feel consigned to being the sort of shark we see on TV because ‘that’s what lawyers do’. As Michael Rudd says, "If you’re really enthusiastic then you need to understand what the law is all about and get a sense of what type of lawyer you want to be."