The stereotypes surrounding the legal profession have been a part of society for centuries. Lawyers have been despised or looked down upon in many cultures, in much the same way that tax collectors were viewed in ancient societies – not that the taxman’s reputation has improved much in the last several thousand years. The great Charles Dickens even made a point of including attorneys in many of his great works – from the scheming Dodson and Fogg in Pickwick Papers to Sampson Brass in The Old Curiosity Shop (referred to as “one of the greatest scoundrels unhung”).
Of course, Dickens was not alone in his negative opinion of the profession or its practitioners. Antioch’s Ammianus Marcellinus had much to say on the subject – more than sixteen-hundred years ago! In his Res Gestae – an historical work that documented life in the Roman Empire from roughly 96 A.D. to the second half of the Fourth Century, he referred to the practice of law by the Aristotelian term “forensic oratory” and opined that the profession had been denigrated to the point where principled men found it to be a hateful thing. He also described four main classes of lawyers, none of which were flattering in any sense of the word.
Today, lawyers are roundly vilified by many in society. Businesses rail against the profession. Politicians have tried to reduce the expression “trial attorney” to little more than an insult. Health care providers and insurance companies blame attorneys for everything from sizeable malpractice judgments to the overall high cost of healthcare in the United States. Everywhere, it seems, lawyers are being castigated as little more than greedy ambulance chasers running around in search of their next payday. As insulting as many of the barbs and jokes might be, that hatred of the legal profession is even more disturbing when you consider what it also says about the clients most lawyers are simply trying to help.
What About Those We Serve?
Forget about lawyers for just a moment, and consider the people behind the cases that law firms represent. By some estimates, more than 700,000 personal injury lawsuits are brought into state courts each year. While large, that number represents but a fraction of the total number of people who suffer injury or death due to car crashes, preventable falls, medical mistakes, and other factors. According to estimates, more than 2.34 million people were injured in auto accidents in 2014. Many suffered traumatic brain injuries. Others were severely disabled, leaving the victims with no ability to work or pay their bills.
In each of those instances, people were injured – sometimes in ways that shatter their lives and their families. In many cases, someone else was at fault. Victims were harmed due to negligence on the part of other people who had a responsibility to act with reasonable due diligence and failed to do so. Each of those victims has a legal right to be made as whole as possible. They have a right to seek compensation to replace lost earnings, pay for medical costs incurred, or have their property or its value restored to them.
More than that, though, they have a moral right to receive those things. As a society, the United States has long recognized the principle that no individual should ever be left to suffer the consequences of another’s negligent conduct. When damages can be demonstrated in a court of law, those whose actions have led to another’s pain, suffering, and loss must be held to account. Compensation must be demanded and delivered, that victims might be recompensed for that which they have lost.
Perception versus Reality
There has been a trend in recent years for politicians and others to use the legal profession as a convenient scapegoat to advance the interests of certain corporate parties, to the detriment of real victims who have suffered real damages. That has been a driving impetus behind the movement for strong tort reform, as lawsuit-detractors throw around phrases like “ambulance chasers” and “frivolous lawsuits.” Research from the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, however, reveals those phrases to be little more than hot button propaganda terms designed to turn public sentiment against victims who only want their due compensation.
Rand found that, despite the millions of injuries that occur each year in the United States, only 10% of victims ever seek compensation. Even more, telling is the fact that a mere 2% of them ever actually file lawsuits. Those facts alone should suggest to any reasonable person that the vast majority of the cases brought by victims who do seek compensation through the legal process are anything but frivolous.
Tort Reform and Victim’s Rights in Texas
The drive for tort reform in Texas has produced results that should cause every citizen to shudder in revulsion. As a result of legislative action, changes in how the state’s Supreme Court views tort actions, and new procedural directives, the number of personal injury cases that even have the opportunity to be decided by a jury has plummeted. So too have the number of civil case filings over the last decade. And while the state has blamed that reduction on the costs associated with filing a case, legal experts in Texas dispute that notion. They argue that victims are filing fewer suits because all of these changes have left them with fewer legal options, and no right of recovery for certain types of damages.
So where does that leave accident victims and others who deserve to be compensated for damages they’ve endured as the result of someone’s negligence or willful actions? If lawmakers and their corporate contributors are unwilling to stand up for the rights of accident victims and their families, who will? Would those who criticize and malign personal injury attorneys just consign those families to whatever economic and lifestyle disasters their accidents caused?
If Dickens were alive today, there’s probably a good chance that he would continue to include lawyers as antagonists in many of his works. After all, there are far more attorneys around today than there were in the Victorian Era, and he would no doubt want to create villains that the reading public would find believable. At the same time, however, Charles was also an intelligent man with a keen eye for recognizing and highlighting human suffering. With that in mind, it is comforting to imagine that he might also recognize the crucial role of today’s lawyers play in securing victims’ rights and protecting families from even greater harm.