Pseudonymous blogging lawyer Private Law Tutor confesses her occasional feelings of “shame” at being a lawyer:
I’ve thought and talked and written about the deep discomfort that ebbs and flows in me with my work. Well, not my work as such, but the work that I do. The industry I work in. The impact we have on lives, as lawyers.
Conflict is normal, and sometimes the people in conflict need help to resolve their disputes. This is what lawyers are primarily engaged in. Dispute prevention and dispute resolution. So our primary purpose is good and honourable. I’m just not always sure that our system and our work meets that standard.
A good friend has asked me a few times now if my discomfort is guilt. I don’t think it is. I think it’s deeper than guilt. After all, guilt can be sorted with an apology. “sorry about that. I made a mistake”. I think my discomfort creeps dangerously close to shame. Shame is a dark shadow that can overtake so much of ourselves. All of us have it lurking somewhere. …
I met with some colleagues recently for coffee. We chatted about lots of stuff. Family. Friends. Fun. Work. Then this comment, like an electric shock, threw me off my path and back into the shadow of my lawyer shame. “I like the research. I like the structured arguments. But you know the bit where we make out the other person to be something they’re not so our client gets what they want. I don’t like that”.
Am I just a “liar liar” who doesn’t even know it?
I was speechless as my mind yelled “Are you for real? Is that the game we’re playing?”. I felt a bit like I was in suspended animation, unable to do or say anything. And with that one comment, all my lawyer shame was back.
Is that the game I’m playing? Is informing someone of the factors that are influential and persuasive, and advising them to present those and minimise and work on their weaker factors, is that as dishonest as that other comment felt. Have I been completely duped by this industry? Am I just a “liar liar” who doesn’t even know it?
And then this “Nice people can’t be barristers, because they just can’t do their job properly”. Another speechless moment. Really? REALLY? Some of my most open and wholehearted conversations have been with my barrister friends. I believe they are nice people and are completely equipped to do their job properly.
So, in discomfort I sit. Once again. It’s dark here in the shadow of shame.
Speaking for myself, I sometimes have analogous feelings about being a lawyer, although I wouldn’t quite label them as “shame”. In my professional practice as a lawyer before coming to CDU as a legal academic, I assiduously avoided practising in the areas of criminal and family law. There were several reasons for that personal policy.
Family law especially in my observation is an area where both parties more often that not are out to exact retribution on each other, sometimes at any cost including the truth. I can certainly understand how people reach that stage of mutual bitterness and recrimination, but I don’t want to spend my working life coping with people in such a state of mind. I know there are others who are better equipped temperamentally to do so.
Victims and their families in criminal matters often report having been as traumatised by their experience with the adversarial legal system as by the original crime.
The reason for my aversion to criminal law practice is slightly different. I worked for a short time as a probation and parole officer for juvenile offenders after my graduation in law. I fairly quickly noticed that I didn’t have all that much sympathy for many of my young clients. I could intellectually recognise that many of them had experienced trauma and disadvantage that made their behaviour at least understandable. However my emotional response was that most of them basically deserved the fate the courts had meted out to them, and in quite a few cases should have been more harshly sentenced in my view (even taking into account criminology research about recidivism and the effects of imprisonment on first offenders).
I didn’t think that was a productive mindset to have in dealing with young offenders, and my conviction was later reinforced when my own immediate family experienced a particularly nasty crime that continues to echo in our lives. I simply would not be able consistently to apply the level of coolness and objectivity that proper legal representation requires. I had no problem achieving that in the areas of public law and commercial litigation where I mostly practised.
The other main reason for my aversion to practising both in family and criminal law was that I was aware that representing a party in those areas very commonly required aggressive cross-examination of the other side. Victims and their families in criminal matters often report having been as traumatised by their experience with the adversarial legal system as by the original crime. There’s no way of completely insulating victims (or alleged victims) from such experiences, because the presumption of innocence and a defendant’s right to a fair trial requires a reasonably extensive ability to test and challenge adverse evidence.
However I remain to be convinced that justice usually requires the sort of nasty, aggressive cross-examination that one often sees in criminal matters, especially though not exclusively from defence counsel. It’s not quite shame, but I’m certainly not proud to be a member of a profession which continues to permit and even aggressively defend the continuation of such practices with fairly minimal constraint except where children or other “vulnerable” witnessses are involved.
Is a witness whose evidence is exposed by cross-examination as containing inconsistencies more worthy of being believed than a glib, intelligent, well-rehearsed liar?
It’s not even clearly demonstrable that such techniques assist in getting to the truth, or that either judges or juries are very good at detecting the truth when they hear it in any event. Is a witness whose evidence is exposed by cross-examination as containing inconsistencies more worthy of being believed than a glib, intelligent, well-rehearsed liar? Is someone temperamentally able to withstand the pressure of aggressive cross-examination more credible than someone who can’t? As Barbara Tversky and George Fisher argue:
Bias creeps into memory without our knowledge, without our awareness. While confidence and accuracy are generally correlated, when misleading information is given, witness confidence is often higher for the incorrect information than for the correct information. This leads many to question the competence of the average person to determine credibility issues. Juries are the fact-finders, and credibility issues are to be determined by juries. The issue then arises whether juries are equipped to make these determinations. Expert testimony may not be helpful. Indeed, since the very act of forming a memory creates distortion, how can anyone uncover the “truth” behind a person’s statements? Perhaps it is the terrible truth that in many cases we are simply not capable of determining what happened, yet are duty-bound to so determine. Maybe this is why we cling to the sanctity of the jury and the secrecy of jury findings:
We can put such questions before the jury entirely without fear of embarrassment, because the way the jury resolves the questions and, in all likelihood, the soundness of its answers will remain forever hidden. Perhaps the allure of the black box as a means toward apparent certainty in an uncertain world has tempted us to entrust the jury with more and harder questions than it has the power to answer.
The courts’ reliance on witnesses is built into the common-law judicial system, a reliance that is placed in check by the opposing counsel’s right to cross-examination—an important component of the adversarial legal process—and the law’s trust of the jury’s common sense. The fixation on witnesses reflects the weight given to personal testimony. As shown by recent studies, this weight must be balanced by an awareness that it is not necessary for a witness to lie or be coaxed by prosecutorial error to inaccurately state the facts—the mere fault of being human results in distorted memory and inaccurate testimony.
I’m not arguing that either jury trials or the adversarial system should be abolished. However, given the well-documented limitations on the ability of that system to detect truth reliably, surely there is a persuasive argument for greater limitations on the ability of counsel to cross-examine witnesses aggressively and thereby inflict surplus trauma on already traumatised people. Maybe the “shame” label is justified if we as a profession fail constructively to address such issues in light of the findings of modern psychology (including the research of Jonathan Haidt about how humans reach moral judgments).