It must be catching, this business of lawyer-baiting. The low regard that opinion polls indicate the public has for those in the legal profession seems to have pervaded the ranks of lawyers themselves.
Virtually every speaker before 360 members of the Utah State Bar gathered here this week for the organization's 59th annual meeting began with a joke in which a lawyer emerges as either foolish or grasping, but always disliked.The assembled attorneys dutifully laughed at each of the stories, but it seemed forced. Always being the fall guy, even when it was one of your peers telling the joke, can't be all that fun - just ask anyone of Polish extraction.
It fact, it's no laughing matter, this image the public holds of lawyers being greedy individuals who will be anything for a fee. Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon R. Hall told the gathering their profession is in need of some serious public relations help.
"We simply have to improve the image of courts and lawyers," Hall said. But the way to do this, he assured them, goes beyond hiring a public relations expert and issuing press releases.
The solution, Hall said, is twofold: first, the legal profession must begin changing its negative image by the way it deals with the public at all levels on a daily basis. Second, more non-lawyers must be brought on to the various policy-making boards that govern the profession.
As for improving the often criticized court system, Hall said there are really only two requirements that a good court must meet: one, that it works, and two, that you like it.
It sounds simple, Hall said, but it's not. Case loads continue to soar while the funding to meet them declines. Executive branches of government continue to force the courts, on a case-by-casebasis, to decide complex social issues such as abortion, child abuse and environment, while at the same time cutting judicial funding in the name of "fiscal conservatism."
The result of all this, Hall said, is that the public is left "disenchanted and confused" with the judiciary.
This low esteem in which courts and judges are held is not aided by the low salary levels that judges receive compared to what they might expect to earn in private practice. Not surprisingly, these dual non-incentives create problems in maintaining a high level of quality in the judiciary.
Judges and lawyers may think the public's lack of regard for their profession and the practitioners is "wrong and grossly unfair," said Hall, but it exists and must be dealt with.
To do that, said Hall, there must be a four-pronged effort: emphasize quality, concentrate on efficiency, reduce the amount of litigation and educate the public on the judicial process.
The first precept, maintaining quality, is the top priority as far as Hall is concerned. That means judicial salaries up to par with the private sector. "We can't succumb to efficiency if it means bargain-basement justice," he said.
In the short term, he said that may mean spending money to save money, such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be saved by simplifying and standardizing the multitude of legal forms used throughout the state.
One danger that must be avoided in the current cost-cutting mood, Hall said, might best be described as "don't throw out the baby with the bath water."
During the relatively prosperous 1970s, there were many programs put in place simply because money was available. Now, when all thoughts are on trimming costs, it is these marginal programs, not the essential ones, that should be trimmed.