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The ‘crafty lawyer’: Why law students need to care about ethics

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Ethics

Most everyone has heard a lawyer joke, especially if you’ve decided to go to law school.

“What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer? A bad lawyer can let a case drag out for several years. A good lawyer can make it last even longer.”

“How many lawyer jokes are in existence? Only three. All the rest are true stories.”

The list goes on. But it might surprise you to learn that these suspicions toward lawyers started only shortly after the formation of the legal profession as we know it. Here’s a commonly held medieval trope, formed in the late 13th or 14th century:

“What craft is your father of?” one man asked another.

“Marry, he is a crafty man of law!” the other replied.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t only a trope or good-natured joke. In fact, in as early as the 13th century, the commonwealth was complaining regularly about “crafty” lawyers.

Commentaries from that time period reveal that lawyers were creating too much litigation, cheating the system to enhance their profits, and essentially being dishonest bottom-feeders. As a 14th-century poem reads, “[lawyers] will beguile you in your hand unless you beware” and “speak for you a word or two and do you little good.”

Crafty Lawyer
Before the ‘Crafty Lawyer’: A king dictating the law, predating the Norman
Conquest of England (credit: London, British Library, Royal MS 11 D IX, f. 6r).

Perhaps even more unfortunately, attitudes didn’t change much throughout the ages—even in America. In his 1782 book Letters of an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote, “Lawyers are plants that will grow in any soil that is cultivated by the hands of others, and when once they have taken root they will extinguish every vegetable that grows around them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville later echoed in 1835, “If I were asked where I place the American aristocracy, I should reply… the judicial bench and the bar… opponents of innovation.”

Bottom line? Lawyers weren’t exactly the most popular people. And despite the creation of legal ethics and Modern Rules of Professional Conduct, these perceptions persist. Lawyers are all at once elitists with ulterior motives and thieves hiding in the night.

Indeed, society continues to paint a bleak picture of the modern American lawyer. Headlines are constantly flooded with the latest legal malpractice case or a corrupt lawyer-gone-politician working for their own gain. Ugly divorces play out in litigation until both parties are bankrupt and their lawyers fill their own pockets from the carnage. Commercialism and profit-mongering keep many clients from receiving the care they need.

From the outside, the legal profession seems to be fraught with bad lawyers. And it is this negative public perception that makes it even more important to value legal ethics as a law student.

Learning the professional code is essential. Applying an ethical and moral code is equally essential, as is spreading awareness and leading by example. And constantly looking into one’s own personal moral conduct and beliefs promotes a strong sense of self that will not waver in the face of pressure, greed, or adversity.

While it is true that the history of the legal profession has been entwined with public mistrust, law students have perhaps the greatest power to change this narrative. By shifting the focus from results-driven legal representation to holistic advocacy and ethics, future lawyers need not fall into the “crafty lawyer” trope—but instead craft their own personal and professional reputation.

Elizabeth Badovinac Elizabeth Badovinac is a third-year student at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School and a member of the Student Lawyer editorial board.