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Is The Law A Business Or A Profession? | Farris Law Firm Blog
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Is the Law a Business or a Profession?

I am a proud member of the legal profession. The profession has traditions and responsibilities, and honorable lawyers take those seriously.

 I write a syndicated column for the Levison Group, called under analysis ™. The topic came up this week that lawyers are just marketers, and it rankled me. Here is what newspapers around the country got from me for my monthly column. 

Look, Up in the Sky, It’s a Pterodactyl. It’s a Biplane. It’s Middle-Aged Legal Guy.

It’s unusually quiet in the Levison Towers this weekend, and I haven’t turned on the radio. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Prairie Home Companion. I was sad to learn that sound effects guy Tom Keith passed away. When my boys were younger, they would ride with me to the office on weekend days and listen to Prairie Home in the car. The sound effects were their favorite part of the stories and skits.  Keith’s passing made me think about how old my boys have gotten, which reminded me that I too am getting older. Middle-Aged Legal Guy sat at my desk this weekend.

Middle-aged Legal Guy is my alter ego. He’s the voice I channel anytime a sentence begins, “I remember back when…” He’s the grumpy old man who sits in my seat and complains about the tactics of opposing counsel. He’s the fuddy-duddy who doesn’t think his mentors are as fuddy-duddy-ish as I used to. 

I had a conversation with a lawyer on Facebook who teaches other lawyers how to create webpages and content for their websites. I’ve tried to make my website prominent ever since Mr. Gore invented those internets. But my friend said something this week that started a discussion which put Middle-Aged Legal Guy’s teeth on edge.

“Lawyers are just marketers who sell legal services.” That line brought out the cape and tights in a hurry.

Middle-Aged Legal Guy was more than a little miffed. “Lawyers who believe that are writing the obituary for our profession. We should be something more than plumbers or car salesman chasing business,” he said.

“I would like to hire a professional plumber if I had a water leak. Do you think lawyers are better than plumbers?”

I could almost feel the veins in Middle-Aged Legal Guy’s neck starting to bulge. “Don’t be silly. Lawyers are members of a profession. Plumbers are members of a trade. I wasn’t claiming elite superiority for lawyers, only that a profession is different from a business.”

My friend signed off while shaking his head that I just didn’t “get it.” Middle-Aged Legal Guy removed his cape and walked away, thinking the same thing. I sat in my chair, stunned at what had just happened.

For clarification, one of my good friends is a plumber. The notion that I (sorry, Middle-Aged Legal Guy) is an elitist is just nonsense. But there are differences between a trade and a profession. The fact that a lawyer didn’t understand this highlights the profession’s problem.

At one time, there were considered to be three professions: medicine, law, and clergy. Practitioners of all three went through an extended course of specialized education and often followed that with an internship or some other system of learning from an experienced professional.  They were bound by codes of ethics, worked full-time in the profession and held a license.

Early lawyers wore wigs and black cloaks, doctors sported white cloaks and clergymen (since there were no clergy women back then) wore the uniforms of their orders. Lawyers have long given up cloaks, of course. We now wear suits and ties. Like businesspeople. Perhaps this is part of my friend’s confusion.

There is a push to deregulate lawyers and allow nonlawyers  to provide legal services. Arguments on both sides of the issue ignore the fact that regulation is a necessity for a profession. Lawyers hold positions of trust in the judicial system. Judges trust lawyers to speak truthfully and perform ethically. Lawyers who betray that trust stand to forfeit their license. The desire to honor the profession and the fear of losing one’s license double the guarantee of honesty in advocacy. Would someone who was never taught to honor the profession and who has never earned a license (so they could not lose one) be concerned with anything other than profit?

As a young lawyer I was gifted to work for a great trial lawyer. I remember many conversations about what a lawyer should do in the community and in the courtroom. On more than one occasion, I remember the remark, “how could he do that? He’s a lawyer.” To be sure, there were discussions about how to run a law practice. The focus was usually on how to take care of clients, however. We rarely discussed the practice as a business.

Early in law school, a professor told my class that if we were going to law school to get rich, we were fools. He was right. Just ask the computer whiz nerds and ShamWow ™ salesmen. Most lawyers make a decent living, to be sure. But there are certainly easier ways to make more money without law school.

You only have to watch late-night TV for a few minutes to realize that Middle-
Aged Law Guy is in the minority. Lawyers hawk their services in between car sales ads and wonder drug spots. I’m sure this is more evidence that I’m getting older. But that’s okay. I don’t mind wearing the Middle-Aged Law Guy cape. It helps keep me warm in this drafty old building.

©2011  under analysis llc. under analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. SpencerFarris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri.  R.I.P Tom Keith. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent directly to the Levison Group via email at comments@levisongroup.com.