Today is Law Day, a national day set aside by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 to celebrate the rule of law. But except for lawyers, their professional organizations and some school and civic-minded groups, few Americans take even a moment on this day to think about this bedrock of our system of government and society, much less celebrate it. There is an enduring dislike of lawyers, as according to public opinion polls, lawyers continue to be at the bottom of the list of respected occupations which in my opinion is a bum rap.
Lawyer-bashers like to smugly make their point with this quote from one of Shakespeare’s plays: "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers." Actually this line is commonly misinterpreted because it is taken out of context. In the play, "Henry VI" (Part 2 Act 4,) one of the characters, Dick the Butcher, makes this comment to his fellow rebels as they plan to overthrow the English government to establish a dictatorship that would take away the rights and freedoms of the people. Shakespeare’s point was that since lawyers are the protectors of the rule of law guaranteeing these rights and freedoms, anyone intending to do away with these rights and freedoms would make it their first order of business to get rid of the lawyers. In other words, lawyers play a key part in a government under a rule of law.
Many lawyers do not play this role in a dramatic or news headline way, such as appearing before the Supreme Court to argue a major case. They do it routinely on a day-to-day basis in their representation of clients in various courts. In criminal cases, their professional duty is to challenge any potential violation of their clients’ rights by government officials. But these challenges go beyond merely protecting the rights of individual clients, as they also in effect protect the public.
According to a recent local story in this newspaper, an attorney challenged the use of four bags of alleged heroin as incriminating evidence against a client who is charged with the criminal possession of the drug. The client was reportedly walking along North Street in Pittsfield with an individual for whom the police had a warrant to search his house four blocks away. The police were following this duo when they decide to stop them which caused the individual in question to drop 68 bags of heroin on the sidewalk. His companion, the lawyer’s client, was then frisked and four bags of heroin were found on him. Both of them were then arrested.
One of the officers testified that these individuals did nothing to put him in fear, did not show weapons, did not try to run away, did not exchange drugs, nor did anything to make the officer believe they were going to commit a crime. The only thing this officer reportedly said was that the lawyer’s client happened to be walking in the company of the individual who was an alleged drug dealer.
This lawyer’s challenge goes beyond the representation of his client. He in effect is doing it to protect the right of anyone from being stopped, patted down and arrested for any incriminating evidence found on their persons merely for walking on a public city sidewalk in the company of a person who is an alleged known criminal.
Lawyers on a more basic level became a necessary part of society because not every human being is honest and law-abiding. As one writer noted, lawyers filled a need in society as "repairmen" to deal with the "nitty-gritty" problems that developed ever since people first decided to live in civilized societies. There really is no other professional group in our society that people can call to deal with problems ranging from landlord-tenant matters, to seeking recourse from contractors who do shoddy work and merchants who sell shoddy products, to seeking compensation for damages caused by the fault of others, to settling marital disputes, and I could keep adding a multitude of other problems.
Despite the fact that lawyers are important protectors of the rights and freedom of people and are much sought after to deal with the day-to-day problems that occur in our society, they continue to be maligned. Why? Because it is the nature of the matters they work on. For the most part they deal with matters that cause people grief. I have joked with my fellow lawyers that we should call our briefcases, griefcases because of the mainly grief-filled files in them.
Unfortunately, some of the blame for these problems eventually gets transferred by the clients to their lawyers. And worse, some consider lawyers to be as bad as the clients they represent. In Durham, N.C., according to a blog by professor of law and writer Jonathan Turley, there is an investigation ongoing into the conduct of a police chief who is alleged to have said that a public defender deserved to be shot because he represents accused criminals.
This Law Day, I urge people to consider the important contributions of lawyers to our democracy and our society.
A Pittsfield lawyer, Robert F. Jakubowicz is a regular Eagle contributor.