Lawyers ought to know better than most people that perceptions can be (a) absolutely wrong, and (b) difficult to dispel. Those of us who practice litigation all have a story about a witness who was perceived completely at odds with the truth or the facts, and a disastrous trial result that could be traced directly to that mis-perception. Lawyers are subject to that same dynamic and we are often to blame for the mis-perceptions about our profession.
I was reminded of this when re-reading a Toronto Star article online from 2008 about the pay raise at that time in the per diem rate for Ontario’s Small Claims Court Deputy Judges, up to $513.00 from $232.00, which had prevailed since 1982. A quote from economist Ken Reid, director of the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, considering a recommended per diem of $750.00, reads as follows: “If you work 200 days a year, that’s $150,000 a year and that doesn’t sound outlandish by lawyer standards. That probably seems like minimum wage to them.”
The truth is that many lawyers earn much less than $150,000.00, and many lawyers don’t see that as “minimum wage” – the public perception, however, is that lawyers see their earnings with a sense of entitlement, and the implication is of greed, elitism and a detachment from the economic reality of much of the population, including our clients.
In our public statements (such as positions taken on caps to contingency fees and referral fees) and in our private dealings with our clients, we need to educate people as to the reality, and try to dispel these perceptions of our profession, that result in an economist commenting that $150,000.00 seems like “minimum wage” to lawyers. We need to be sensitive to the fact that our hourly rates, or the percentages we charge, are not insignificant sums of money to our clients. We need to be aware that while we may believe we are fighting the noble fight for access to justice (i.e., contingency fee rates that make it economically feasible for lawyers to take on smaller claims), the way we present our positions is often perceived in a different light and contributes to the mis-perceptions about the profession.
If we hope to have our clients believe in us, and have faith that we are working for their interests and not solely for our own wallets, then we need to speak and behave in a way consistent with our desired image. We may not be able to change the public perception of lawyers in one grand gesture, but we can begin to do so, one client at a time, by ensuring that our clients understand what we do, from a dollars and cents perspective, and that they have faith in us as their honest and transparent representatives. We can do so by looking at the profession and at money through a different lens. Yes, law is a business, but it is a business which is at heart about our clients and not about ourselves.