Courting Justice: The Elephant in the Room

February 25, 2013

By Robert N. Hunn

I know what you’re thinking. Here is a plaintiffs trial lawyer (namely, me) starting a blog about the civil justice system. This guy is going to be a spin doctor for the plaintiff personal injury bar. He’s going to rant and rave about how plaintiff lawyers are misunderstood. How they are not the bottom feeding scum sucking swamp rats who hang out in emergency rooms looking to sue anyone for anything, no matter how trivial. Why waste my time reading his B.S. blog when I could be reviewing my Facebook page for the eleventh time today?

Now that we’ve gotten the pink elephant out in the open, let’s talk about it for a second. No, I am not going to tell you that being a trial lawyer is akin to being a Rabbi, or a policeman, or a fireman or a teacher (or a school crossing guard, a librarian or Bruce Springsteen).

I will tell you that at times I am ashamed at what I’ve seen plaintiff trial lawyers do. And while I am less against attorney advertisements than I was in my youth, I am literally disgusted with some of the representations I’ve heard plaintiff lawyers make in their ads. I want to punch the TV when I hear one lawyer constantly say, “We get you paid!” Paid? Being injured is the same as a job where you get paid? Will someone hire me to rupture my C-7 disc? No one gets paid for an injury. People are compensated for their impairments and the loss of their ability to freely enjoy their lives without those impairments.

That’s it. No one gets paid.

The plaintiff’s trial bar has its share of bad apples. Now—and here comes the but (you knew there was one coming)—here’s what I don’t concede. Every profession has its fair share of bad apples. There are doctors who have paid massive fines for billing Medicare for operations they didn’t perform. There are accountants creating mythical tax deductions and tax shelters for their clients. There are investment bankers getting wealthy on financial scams that bleed money from the poor. In any profession, there are those that bring shame to others.

But here’s something that maybe you don’t know. It’s not the vast majority. It’s not even some. It’s a very small minority of lawyers. The majority of plaintiff trial lawyers are honest and play strictly by the rules. They don’t make a fortune, and they work very hard for their clients in return for their salary. The majority care deeply about their clients. The majority sleep very well at night because they don’t even come close to the line between ethical and unethical.

I will save for a future blog some of the things trial lawyers do that I am proud of.

Unfortunately, and I will admit this, my profession has been publically defined not by the vast majority, but by the few that will stage an accident or steal from their clients. And I agree it’s worse when we engage in unethical conduct than when it’s done by a physician or an accountant. Why is that? It’s because we have a fiduciary duty to our clients as well as the civil justice system to be painstakingly honest and forthright in all our dealings. This is the reason why lawyers, as a group, are defined by our bad apples and not the majority of good lawyers. We are supposed to be fiduciaries of integrity and honesty. It’s news when we are not.

We trial lawyers have to do a better job (I sound like Andy Reid) articulating what we stand for, what we do and what we believe in as a group. I would be the first to say neither I nor my legal brethren have handled this particular challenge well. I would be the first to point a finger directly at me and say, “My bad.”

In a future blog I will explain how a lawyer can defend a known mass murderer with his or her moral integrity intact.