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Shark Week: A Brief History of the Lawyer as Shark

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on July 06, 2015 11:59 AM

It's time for Discovery's Shark Week again, the annual celebration of all things cold-blooded, sharp toothed, and, well, sharky. FindLaw is jumping on the bandwagon, celebrating the shark in all lawyers.

Even though Shark Week is in its 28th year, lawyers have been called sharks even longer -- for several centuries, in fact. Here's a brief history of the lawyer as shark:

Origin of the Term

Pull out that Oxford English Dictionary, because it's time for an etymology lesson. The word "shark," as in the fish, entered the English language in the 1560s, well after professional lawyers emerged in the thirteenth century.

The idea of the shark as someone who preys upon others developed soon after. By 1600, when King James was translating the Bible and Shakespeare was polishing off "Macbeth," people were using shark to describe all sorts of scoundrels and villains. Don't worry, though -- lawyers were just one of many professions to be labeled with the term. Pickpockets and scam artists were also considered sharks.

An (Unjustly!) Hated Profession

The idea of the shark lawyer stems from the idea that lawyers are brutal, ruthless killers, willing to drag someone down whenever they smell blood in the water. Or maybe it's because we're fierce and powerful, with no perjorative connotation -- we at FindLaw definitely prefer the later interpretation.

Sadly, the exact date that someone first cursed the legal profession is lost to history. We do know, however, that lawyers have been long despised. In his "Inferno," Dante puts lawyers in the eighth circle of Hell -- a place of damnation that involved being poked with pitchforks by demons. In "The Canterbury Tales," Chaucer depicts the Summoner -- essentially a lawyer for ecclesiastical court -- as a leprosy-scarred drunk hiding behind Latin to mask his incompetence. That means the stereotype of lawyers as drunks misusing Latin dates back to at least 1475.

Melville, the great chronicler of sea life, was no fan either. He described the "ordinary Brown Shark" as a "sea attorney ... a grasping, rapacious varlet." Call it poetic license.

Lawyers, however, know better than that. We're Abraham Lincolns, Thurgood Marhsalls. For every shark out there, there are plenty lawyers working for advance justice, or at least vigorously defending the interests of their client. After all, who wouldn't want a shark on their side in times of need?

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