Do you know any good lawyer jokes? Yes? Ok, ok I get it. You don’t need to keep going. I get the joke.
Me, I wasn’t truly aware of the public’s negative perception of lawyers until I started law school. When informed of this apparent fact at orientation, I nodded along with the crowd, but I never really understood it. I always thought that lawyers were there to help people, prevent problems, fix problems, and do good. That day I was given the most important piece of advice that I received in all three years of law school: that the only people who could change the public perception of lawyers, are lawyers themselves.
Perhaps no lawyer is the butt of more jokes than the personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer. The plaintiff is the person or entity bringing a lawsuit. The plaintiff’s lawyer, especially in personal injury or negligence cases, is only paid if the client gets paid and, therefore, usually fronts all legal costs. This is called a contingency fee and is intended to allow for legal representation for those who can’t afford to pay upfront. Still, these lawyers (let’s call them plaintiff’s lawyers) make for the best lawyer jokes, and are the cream of the crop of lawyers that people love to hate.
Critics of these lawyers argue that their lawsuits increase the cost of products and services, insurance rates, and taxes, and that they invite false lawsuits and malingering clients. Such claims feed into the prevailing image of all lawyers as untrustworthy and unscrupulous. As you might guess, I disagree. I got my start as a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer before I transitioned to a broader litigation practice, and that has given me a unique perspective which benefits all of my clients.
Despite the perception and jokes, plaintiff’s lawyers are often on the foreground of positive change in the legal community, and the public as a whole. Idealistic or not, their livelihood depends on it. To be successful, plaintiff’s lawyers must often maintain a difficult balance of being forceful and polite, dynamic and dignified, knowing when and where to push. Plaintiff’s lawyers seek to fix problems, make changes, and can’t take no for an answer. Many plaintiff’s lawyers work with each other, and with other lawyers, to pass legislation that improves the litigation process for everyone.
Recently, as part of the usual sudden bustle of activity which concluded the end of the Legislative Session, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed several bills relevant to civil litigation – one of which, if signed by the Governor, will permit a plaintiff to recover directly from a third-party defendant found to be liable to the direct defendant through contribution or indemnity.
The intent is to close a loophole that had previously allowed certain defendants held liable by judge or jury to evade payment on a judgment. It is expected to promote settlement of cases, thereby reducing judicial waste and unnecessary post-judgment proceeding, allowing the courts to focus on matters not otherwise resolved.
Fortunately, I truly believe that most of us lawyers want to better the public perception that we live with. This bill presents one example of a group of lawyers who saw a problem and took action to better the system, better the legal profession as a whole, and thus, better the public perception of lawyers.