Life's no joke in the lawyers' chamber of horrors

M'learned friends are miserable, despite their fat fees. Jack O'Sullivan and Elizabeth Wine find out why
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What do you call 1,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. What's the difference between a dead lawyer on the road and a dead rat? The dead rat has skid marks in front of it. Why can lawyers swim in shark-infested waters without danger of being eaten? Professional courtesy.

And so the jokes go on and on. The legal profession has spawned a comedy industry. There are 70,000 pages of this poisonous wit on the Internet, all marks of public contempt for m'learned friends. And how they're hurting. Yesterday, Barbara Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions, faced with accusations that the solicitors she employs are miserable, offered an intriguing insight into more general trouble in chambers. Her retort amounted to a claim that since most lawyers are miserable, we shouldn't be too surprised if a few in her own legal corner, the Crown Prosecution Service, are also off colour. Some 80 per cent of solicitors in private practice are looking for a new job, Ms Mills told Radio 4's Today programme.

A nation choked on its muesli. How can it be that a profession apparently living on blank cheques can be in the doldrums? We never realised that the bewigged were so unhappy and such sensitive beings. (Why is it that many lawyers have broken noses? From chasing parked ambulances.) Have we, perhaps, been going a bit too far with the acid humour?

Apparently so, according to The Lawyer, a weekly newspaper, which polled its readers in the summer and found that 63 per cent of the respondents thought lawyers had a negative public image. Nearly nine out of 10 thought the profession was less respected than 20 years ago.

How is it that lawyers have come to be regarded as low life, sunk, as they are, down there with journalists and politicians in the public's esteem? "It's mainly the fees. There is a really negative feelings about paying lawyers that doctors, for example, don't get," said one lawyer yesterday. "When you win or even if you lose, the client seems happy to pay. But as the months go by, and the bills arrive, you get this negative feeling from them." Such attitudes are not surprising to those of us who have to pay up. (What can a goose do, a duck can't, and a lawyer should? Stick his bill up his ass.)

Most lawyers will admit to other weaknesses. Some will concede, at least privately, that they are boring. "My mother says it's the nature of the training," confessed one solicitor. "When I'm telling a story, I give a dry, crusty resume because I spend my day reducing vast amounts of material to a few salient facts. Whereas a normal person will tell you, `She said this, and then he said that, and then she did this and so on.' Though these accounts are often inaccurate and no more informative that mine, they're much more entertaining."

And then he explained the problem of confidentiality. "Lawyers can't talk about what they do in the office during the day. So unless I'm a terribly interesting chap, what the hell do I have to talk about? Add to that the fact that a lot of lawyers are phenomenally pompous and we've got a problem."

But the current state of depression apparently sweeping the Inns of Court and solicitors' offices across the country doesn't spring simply from public unpopularity. After all, lawyers, though respectable, have never been loved. When Dick discusses a replacement for the King in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part II, he declares his priority: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

Many lawyers are fed up because the good old days of job security are over. "It used to be the case that if you had a law degree, especially one from Oxford or Cambridge, then doors opened," said one lawyer. "You were sure of a job. But in recent years, we have felt, for the first time, the chill of recession." In the early Nineties lawyers experienced unemployment, and though business has recovered, those used to privilege are still in shock.

"Law is so much more competitive these days," said another. "We are being asked to market ourselves more aggressively. In the past, business clients would stay with you for years unless something terrible went wrong. Now they are shopping around ruthlessly. They might have close relationships with three or four legal firms and play one off against the other. In the old days, clients would have been scared to ask at the beginning for a quote. And they certainly wouldn't go off to another firm for another estimate and return to tell you they had a lower quote. All that's changed.

"We're given billing targets. Firms expect you to produce a minimum number of billable hours work a day - maybe three or four in easy-going firms or six in the toughest outfits. You have to be great at glad-handing clients.

"Younger lawyers are dissatisfied. It's harder to get a partnership. And people are wondering whether partnership is worth the trouble, because of the responsibility. There is also the financial risk - some firms have gone bankrupt. And many of those who are ready to wait for partnership are frustrated with the managements of firms, which they can see don't have the managerial, marketing or PR skills that are needed in this more competitive environment."

All very sad. But many will recognise this as a snapshot of just about any professional group over the past decade, struggling to adjust from cosy security to a risky and harder working life, with some gaining great financial reward, others facing sudden failure.

If the jokes are anything to go by, the public will have little sympathy. (How do you get a lawyer out of a tree? Cut the rope). Nor will the concerns of m'learned friends gain much credibility (How can you tell a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving.)

The most likely outcome is that lawyers, like teachers and doctors, will get used to the harsher new world. And most recognise that it's wise to suffer in silence. "No one will tell you on the record that he'd like a different job," one lawyer said yesterday. "Clients would say, `I'm paying him pounds 200 an hour and he's saying he doesn't want to be a lawyer.' "