How Do We Fix the Public Perception Problem?
By Tanner Adkison, 2L, FSU College of Law
Having your client’s trust is essential to being an effective advocate on the client's behalf. However, lawyers are nowhere near the top when it comes to trustworthiness compared to other professions.
Gallup’s yearly poll for honesty and ethics rankings of different professions found that only 19% of people responded high or very high about lawyers in this category compared to the 30% that responded low or very low. Lawyers had significantly lower ratings than doctors, nurses, judges and police officers. Since Gallup has recorded this metric, lawyers have not topped 25% since 1985.
Ipsos also did a study for their Global Trustworthiness Rankings of different professions. Only 22% of the U.S. survey respondents found lawyers trustworthy, while 34% found them untrustworthy. The U.S. is lower than the global average of 29% that believe lawyers are trustworthy.
In an industry that places a strong emphasis on professionalism and integrity, why does the public lack confidence that lawyers are trustworthy and honest? Also, how do lawyers improve upon these standards?
There are several factors that cause people to believe lawyers are untrustworthy and dishonest. First, the legal system is naturally adversarial, pitting parties against each other and returning an outcome that, in most circumstances, is not favorable to both parties. Unlike other adversarial events such as sports, where people can move on in a short period of time, legal cases have a broader impact on each party’s future. Further, it is natural for one party to believe the other is being dishonest or ingenuine in describing the facts and events of the case. The adversarial system can lead to a disdain for an opposing lawyers and their strategies, even if those strategies fall within legal and ethical standards of the legal profession.
Second, in criminal cases, the defendant is guaranteed the right to legal counsel under the U.S. Constitution. This can create a negative image of the lawyers who are in the position of representing defendants who have committed egregious crimes. People can forget that lawyers are not endorsing their clients’ actions. As former ABA President Bob Carlson said:
Lawyers are not defending the crime. They are defending rights and liberties—to which we all are entitled—that are enshrined in the Constitution.
However, it can be difficult to get the public to understand that principle in the face of the allegation made against a defendant.
Third, while most lawyers follow the Florida Bar’s professionalism rules, some do not. The Florida Bar Statistics from 2016 to 2021 report over 200 Discipline Orders a year. While that may seem small with a Bar population of over 100,000, it only takes a few of those disciplinary cases making the news for lawyers as a whole to get a bad reputation.
Lawyers cannot change every bad image placed upon the profession. Still, lawyers can make efforts to improve the relationships they have with their clients to leave lasting impressions that are positive. Doctors, nurses, judges, and police officers all have bad apples within their professions, yet each has found ways to maintain trust with the community. For lawyers to gain the same level of trust, it will require improvement as communicators. That doesn’t just include a lawyer’s ability to be a great orator or negotiator. To be an effective communicator with clients requires a lawyer to listen better and understand the emotions each client is undergoing. Clients should feel that their lawyer cares not just about the facts that can help build a case but also about the entire event that has put them in their particular predicament. When a client feels that their lawyer fully understands the situation, they will be more receptive to a lawyer’s counsel. Then the lawyer needs to be able to speak with clients in a way that the client fully understands what is expected in the lawyer-client relationship, how the case is progressing, and what strategies are being taken.
It is worth reading Rules 4-1.2, 4-1.4, and 4-1.5 of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar to understand the information that is required to be communicated with the client regarding the objectives of the representation, the status of the representation and the fees. Many Florida Bar complaints occur due to a lawyer’s failure to satisfy these rules. In the May 1st, 2022 Disciplinary Actions delivered by the Florida Bar and Florida Supreme Court, eight people faced punishment for actions that involved either the failure to communicate properly with a client or comments made by the lawyer about or to a client. This is an area that can and should be improved by lawyers. Having better firm guidelines in place for client communications is very important.
It is difficult to become the best communicator in an electronic world. Email, text messages and phone calls do not provide the clearest understanding of how the client is trying to express information. You don’t get the visual cues that can help paint a better picture. Phone calls can even miss some vocal cues if the call is not crystal clear. The client can have difficulties understanding the strategies and processes that a lawyer is trying to describe through electronic communication. Nor does the lawyer-client relationship feel like the lawyer is trying to understand on a personal level.
While time may be money, it is worth the effort to make the relationship not feel entirely like a business transaction. Think about when the public interacts with doctors, nurses, judges and police officers. These encounters are usually in an in-person environment. They interact far less through electronic communication than lawyers do. It is worth meeting in person on some extra occasions to build better lawyer-client relationships. Understandably not all communication can be done in person, and the Florida Bar has taken steps to help achieve better communication by publishing the Best Practices for Professional Electronic Communication.
Communication with clients is a great area for lawyers to gain the respect of the community that will improve their impressions of the legal profession’s honesty and trustworthiness. Whether a law firm is dealing with more in-person or electronic communications, the law firm can put into place helpful guidelines for lawyers to effectively communicate with clients. It is time to make positive strides in an area of emphasis for the legal profession.
About the Author
Tanner Adkison is:
a 2L at the Florida State University College of Law.
a member of the William H. Stafford American Inn of Court.
a member of the College of Law’s Student Advisory Board for the Raising the Bar Professional Program.
a new member of the Florida State University College of Law Trial Team.
a former student-athlete at Florida State University.
He holds a bachelor's degree in Business Management and Political Science from Florida State University.