WASHINGTON, February 8, 2015 − According to Michael Asimow, a professor of law emeritus at UCLA School of Law, lawyers are the most hated profession in the world.
This is not particularly surprising, given the depiction of lawyers we view constantly on television, which isn’t a lot different these days from Shakespeare’s famous line about that profession back in Elizabethan times. Many firm opinions are formed today by viewers from watching television. But entertainment programs depicting any profession, while often “realistic,” have no requirement to mirror actual reality.
“I realize that legal dramas aren’t reality, but so often they portray this kind of (negative) behavior and non-attorneys think it is reality.”
— Christine Corcos, Associate Professor of Law, Louisiana State University Law Center.
Asimow says that pop culture is the greatest teacher in the history of the universe. He says lawyers were not always hated. It wasn’t always that way. But this decade’s increasing hatred of lawyers is very much reflected in pop culture.
Indeed, from 1957 – 1966, Raymond Burr’s character, attorney Perry Mason, was perhaps one of the most admired individuals in America (not counting JFK). Mason routinely proved his clients were not guilty, something that always happened at the end of the show. Better yet, Mason was always able to reveal the identity of the real bad guy, proving to be better at crime solving than the police force itself.
Early 1960’s also featured The Defenders. This highly popular show, said to have been far ahead of its time, was primarily about social issues, and featured lawyers involved in the pressing issues of the day such as abortion, euthanasia and anti-Communist blacklisting. Some have called it one of the best legal dramas of all time.
Two decades later, the television show that many point to as inspiring nearly all the current attorney-based TV series, L.A. Law (1986-1994), was the first of these programs to depict law as an actual business. It had great ratings, and much of its focus was on ethics.
Amy Brenneman played the eminently reasonable Judge Amy Gray on Judging Amy (1999-2005). The program was a good depiction of the human side of a reasonably typical judge and provided a positive influence on its viewers’ conception of the law.
The Practice (1997-2004) offered a significantly different view of the law than viewers experienced when watching the very nice Judge Amy. The Boston law firm depicted in The Practice took any case available in order to make money, and the ethics of the main character, senior partner Bobby Donnell−played by Dylan McDermott−was always questionable. The other firm members were the good guys, frequently calling Bobby on his ideas and strategies.
Boston Legal (2004-2008) continued and extended the slide. Sexual harassment of female employees was routine and no big deal, ethics were typically pushed aside to win cases and both issues with consequences and the practice of law itself were trivialized.
Consider next the highly negative impression created by Judge Judy (1996-present). Despite her amazing commercial success, Judy is an embarrassment. Judges do not do, and certainly are not supposed to do what Judy does: belittle litigants, apply the law without reflection or research, reveal personal prejudices and control evidence.
Speaking of judges, did Simon Cowell, seeing that insulting people sells on TV, become the mean judge on American Idol (2002-present) for that very reason?
NBC recently cancelled Bad Judge (limited 2014 run) because of poor ratings and protests from lawyers. According to the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association for Women Attorneys, “the show portrayed the judge as unethical, lazy, crude, hyper-sexualized and unfit to hold such an esteemed position of power.”
Television programs that confirm rationalizations also serve to cement perception. An entanglement with the law for many individuals often means having to spend money that is not readily available. Because lawyers are often needed to “fix” bad things, it is easy to attach negative sentiment to the attorney who “charged too much” or “didn’t get a good result,” despite the often stark truth that the attorney is being underpaid and that lawyers are not magicians who pull rabbits out of hats to deliver spectacular results from a labyrinth of dire circumstances.
Are there bad lawyers? Are there bad garbage men? Are there bad restaurant owners? When was the last time anyone did a TV show about bad farmers?
Television capitalizes on the sensational. And in our society, lawyers are often at sensationalism’s heart.
There are still “good lawyer” shows on television today. The Good Wife’s (2009 – present) Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, is seen as an honest and ethical betrayed woman. She made herself successful and did not divorce her cheating husband.
The best of todays’ crime-law dramas, most of which are similar to Law & Order and its spinoffs, depict the attorneys as hard working and dedicated. When an attorney is “on the take” or breaks the law, the shows do well to highlight the behavior as negative, with the bad attorney ultimately caught and punished.
Unfortunately, television today mostly portrays lawyers as greedy, unethical, and very aggressive, often needlessly so, at least in viewers’ opinions. Impressions are made not because of one show, but because of the continuous, compounding impressions from repeated watching. When the average TV viewer becomes accustomed to see lawyers as greedy, un-ethical predators, it’s hard to persuade that viewer otherwise when it comes to viewing the profession in real life.
A report from the Nielsen media rating company published in March 2014 reveals that:
- The average American watches more than five hours of live television every day.
- That figure skews significantly higher for African Americans. Considerably so.
- TV viewership is less for Hispanics or Asian Americans.
- For all ethnic groups, viewing time increases steadily with age, with viewers over 65 watching TV for more than seven hours a day.
Given these current statistics, it’s easy to see why TV movies, series and individual programs depicting the legal profession have become so influential−lately in a mostly negative way.
Now consider another profession: doctors. They are all loved. Marcus Welby, M.D. is every doctor. Doctors like Welby are not merely loved. They are idolized. One result: every person over the age of 55 sooner or later begins a conversation with “My doctor…” It’s personal.
Doctors are loved, one suspects, because television consistently portrays them as saviors, notably ethical individuals who are highly moral and compassionate in their chosen profession.
But reality is often at odds with this perception. Medical malpractice is behind only heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the United States. Most medical malpractice, however, goes unreported. An article published in The Journal of the American Medical Association says that as many as 225,000 people die each year as a result of medical malpractice. The article splits these unfortunate deaths into specific subcategories:
- 12,000 deaths from unnecessary surgery
- 7,000 deaths from medication errors in hospitals
- 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals
- 80,000 deaths from infections
- 106,000 deaths from non-error, adverse effects of medication
The AMA says that about 85,000 lawsuits are filed against doctors and hospitals each year, estimating that the actual annual number of medical injuries is approximately one million.
Despite catastrophic injuries and even death, medical malpractice victims or their families often do not file lawsuits or make claims against a physician because of a deep-seated and profound belief that the doctor “didn’t do anything wrong.”
It is hard to hate a doctor (except when they keep you waiting). They save lives. Even when they do not, it is not their fault. At least TV says so.
Throughout its history, television has paraded many lovable doctors, nurses, medics and techs before its viewers. All of them, despite occasional personal flaws and melodrama outside of the work environment, could never be hated. For that reason, it’s both easy and rational to conclude that the generally portrayal of the medical profession on TV has been a major reason for creating and cementing the public’s positive perception of doctors and other healthcare personnel.
Everyone watched and applauded the medical folks on General Hospital (1963-still airing reruns); M.A.S.H. (1972-1983); Quincy M.E. (1976-1983); St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (1993-1998); ER (1994-2009); Scrubs (2001-2010); House (2004-2012); Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present); and Royal Pains (2009 – present).
Even Nurse Jackie, despite her drug addiction, was loved.
So where is that police officer when you need her?
“Everyone says they hate lawyers, yet I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their kid to be one.”
− Jessi Klein, comedian
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
His new book “Who Will Pay My Auto Accident Bills?, The Most Comprehensive Nationwide Auto Accident Resolution Book, Ever” can be reviewed on http://www.completeaccidentbook.com and can be ordered there, or obtained directly on Amazon: Click here to order
Mr. Samakow’s “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign, El Textarudo, has become nationally recognized. Please visit the website http://www.textarudo.com and “like” the concept on the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/textarudo.