Charles Nevin: Just what have we got against lawyers?

One of the jokes after Cheney's bullseye was that his popularity had gone up as a result


Journalism, I find, has its detractors. No matter how many clanging hammer blows we strike for liberty, there is still, for some reason, a tendency to be a bit sniffy about us. My consolation, as I receive the wary handshakes, is the knowledge that there are even less popular vocations, such as parking regulation and contract killing. And, of course, being a lawyer.

They are unpopular, aren't they? It seems to be getting worse, too. One of the jokes after Dick Cheney's bullseye on the Texan lawyer, poor Mr Harry Whittington, was that the Vice-President's popularity rating had gone up as a result. And, over here, where were the angry demonstrations when it was revealed that car mechanics charge more than barristers (well, all right, junior ones)? Exactly. And yet a barrister would think it extremely bad form to take a sharp breath, sigh and say to a client, "this sounds expensive," even though it will be.

I know a little about the etiquette because, steady, I was a lawyer. I studied under no less a figure than Lord Hoffmann, the highly distinguished Lord of Appeal. Many was the tutorial where I sat in silence lost in admiration for his forensic acuity while he cross-examined one of my faltering fellow students on some knotty point of jurisprudence; a silence which, sadly, remained unbroken whenever he would tire of my colleague and demand, flatteringly but entirely unrealistically, "Tell him, Nevin."

Despite this, I proceeded to the Inns of Court, and was not finally persuaded of my unsuitability for the world of the bodkin-sharp brain and meaningful stare until, in my only appearance, I failed to convince the magistrates of Acton that a miscarriage of justice of Dreyfusian proportion would ensue if I were to be convicted of parking too close to a zebra crossing. Truly, as it is said, and as the looks on their faces all too clearly conveyed, "a man who defends himself has a fool for a client."

Nevertheless, my experience does allow me to tell you that lawyers really don't deserve such universal obloquy, even if they do generally possess a highly specific gravity and a sense of humour based on a sound grasp of promissory estoppel.

I know, too, that there's a history going back to at least Luke's gospel - "Woe unto you, lawyers!" - but Luke was a doctor, and may well have been involved in a malpractice suit. I know, too, that, pace the juniors, not to put too fine a point on it, without prejudice, it's got quite a lot to do with the, ah, money. As the taxi driver taking me to interview the late Sir David Napley, solicitor and man of influence, put it, admiringly: "David Napley? He's got a big meter!"

Nevertheless, the current continuing unpopularity does seem odd, especially in this country, where a typical list of well-known lawyers would read: Michael Mansfield, Geoffrey Robertson, Cherie Booth, Lord Woolf, Gareth Pierce, Louise Christian, Imran Khan, and Clive Stafford Smith, all of whom (all right, almost) could be described as left-leaning and right-thinking. By contrast, there are no evident Napleys, Goodmans or Carter Rucks at large these days, or any obvious successors to Dickens's delightful Mr Tulkinghorn.

Again, until comparatively recently, judges could be relied on. Mr Justice Melford Stevenson, who sent the Krays down, called his house "Truncheons". Mr Justice Harman was not only unaware of Gazza; he also once kicked a taxi driver under the misapprehension that he was a journalist, which was a bit harsh, as it was his taxi driver.

Compare this with today's law lords, somewhere to the left of a Labour Government (admittedly an area almost the size of Cherie's appearance fees), and many of them, including Lord Hoffmann, enthusiastic cyclists. High Court judges, meanwhile, are locked in fierce competition over knowledge of north London bus routes and how to download the Ordinary Boys.

So why the problem? Well, yes, there have been suggestions that an offer by lawyers to settle the national debt, buy Dublin, or pay everybody's gas bills for a year would do the trick. But I think it's more to do with this confusion of image and consequent lack of certainty, something that the public abhors as much as the law.

What's required is something we media people call "rebranding". A change of name can work wonders. Many of my learned friends, especially those in the Cabinet, might think New Lawyer sounds pretty good, but I prefer something more radical. How about dispute agents, solutions facilitators, or client finance adjusters? Freedom Fighters has a bit of a ring, too. For an ultra-contemporary take, though, I would go for The Rights Bunch.

Excellent. I'm almost tempted to have another go myself. Failing that, I could come round and have a look at your car.

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