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Even Though You're a Lawyer, You Shouldn't Be an Elitist

How many lawyer jokes are there? Three. The rest are true stories.

It's an oldie but illustrates a point. Many of those jokes are based on a public perception that attorneys are elitists and must be put down or at least humbled. Like the U.S. election results seem to say, 323 million people can't be wrong.

Lawyer jokes are to the profession what gallows humor is to the condemned. Sad but true -- which is what makes them funny. It is society's way of purging a distasteful reality without choking. An attorney says on national television that his murderous client is not guilty as a matter of law (ahem, Dershowitz), and you can almost hear the collective retching.

Purging Is Healthy

In a profession tarnished by high-minded practitioners since the trial of Socrates, some lawyers are calling out elitism in the institution. It starts in education and rises to the top. In the words of accomplished California attorney Jill Switzer writing for Above the Law, "Our profession suffers from elitism; it permeates every aspect of practice. Where we went to law school and how we ranked affects our ability to get jobs, move up the ladder, become partner or whatever goals we have."

Switzer contends that law schools keep out potentially good lawyers through elitist standards. In her case, she went to a low-tier law school and everyone in her class passed the bar (all but one in the first attempt) and went on to successful careers.

How can we purge the legal profession of elitism? In determining a lawyer's ability, we should look beyond where you graduated from law school and your class rank. BigLaw is especially to blame for over-emphasizing these factors. It's generally understood that if you're gunning for BigLaw, you better be sure to attend one of the elite schools. To avoid elitist tendencies in your practice, consider:

  • Adopting an attitude of gratitude
  • Remembering how many people have JDs in this country
  • Spending time with non-lawyers
  • Finding ways to give back to those who are less fortunate

Nothing to Fear but Ourselves

It remains to be seen whether elitism will imperil the profession, as Switzer and others claim. But when Shakespeare suggested killing all the lawyers, he may not have been joking. The profession literally has died more than once.

Whether or not the profession is elitist, it seems intuitive that lawyers should at least fear the public perception. Surely, it is enough of a problem to take a good look in the mirror and to ask ourselves if it is true. Or if for no other reason, to see if we look good.

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