Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lawyers as Shills

I've been practicing law for quite some time now.  I've always been in private practice, generally in firms of 10 or so attorneys, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.  For a relatively short time, 3-4 years, I worked in a larger firm, with more than 100 attorneys.  I've been around, have seen a great deal; have seen the practice of law alter rather dramatically for various reasons, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad.  One of the ways in which I think it's changed for the bad is the emphasis increasingly being made on the lawyer functioning not as a lawyer, but as a shill.

A shill is a promoter, a booster, someone skilled in the art of the sales pitch.  The term can be used derisively and can have somewhat sleazy connotations, but I'm not necessarily saying that a lawyer today is called upon to act as a con man or a carnival barker.  However, especially in the case of large law firms, lawyers are being valued more and more for their ability to market not merely themselves and their firms, but their clients as well.  They are valued less and less for their skill in the practice of law.  They are encouraged to act as shills more than they act as lawyers; not so much practice law as sell, sell and sell.

To a certain extent, of course, this has always been the case.  Rainmakers (as they are called) have always been esteemed because of the clients they attract.  And of course advertisement of legal services, once restricted, is commonplace.  Some of the advertising has been and is less than dignified.

But now large firms are not just trying to attract clients.  They also seek to promote their clients to state governments and the federal government; they lobby, sometimes registering themselves as lobbyists, sometimes not.  They seek to promote clients as businesses in the global market.  They pursue the political aims of their clients and sometimes political parties (Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican National Committee, practiced in a large firm which regularly represents Republican candidates and elected officials).  They network, identify and target key players, push agendas. 

For me, this is not practicing law.  I find myself wondering why lawyers are doing such things, when it seems anyone with marketing skills would do (likely for much less in the way of remuneration).  I also find myself wondering what effect this has or will have on the quality of legal practitioners.  If the most glamorous, high-paying jobs for attorneys are as shills (not to mention the easiest jobs when it comes to the knowledge of the law and representing clients before courts and agencies) what motivation is there to be a "real lawyer"?

The law has been used as a stepping stone into politics for a long time.  I question whether lawyers make good elected officials.  Lawyers are trained to represent a single client, told to avoid conflicts of interest.  A lawyer representing a number of people with conflicting interests is, I think, ill-equipped to do so.  Lawyers obviously have a place in government, there being so many laws to interpret, apply and draft, but I question whether they should have the place they hold in politics.

Sadly, lawyers already have a poor reputation.  I suspect it will get worse, though, the more they act as and are perceived as nothing more than wheeler dealers.  But it may be that I'm just an old fashioned sort, and am of a dying breed.  No doubt there will always be a need for skilled legal practitioners, but I fear their ranks will grow thinner and thinner.  Perhaps the future will see The Triumph of the Shill.

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