From Diane Ravitch’s opinion piece over on CNN, regarding recent upheaval – and yes, striking – at the statehouse in Madison, Wisconsin:
The uprising in Madison is symptomatic of a simmering rage among the nation’s teachers. They have grown angry and demoralized over the past two years as attacks on their profession escalated.
When it comes to “attacks on their profession”, lawyers are way ahead of teachers and have been for years. There is really no comparison. Here’s what Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer, said around 1850:
There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common, almost universal.
What has changed since 1850 is not the “almost universal” impression that lawyers are dishonest; but rather the idea, which now seems risible, that “confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people”.
In the race to the bottom of public esteem, teachers have a long way to go.
Still, that does not stop them from flexing their political muscle in Wisconsin upon the provocation that their pay is going to be cut, and from doing so in the firm conviction that they are entitled to their “rage”.
Is there a lesson here for lawyers? Not directly, at least as far as I am concerned. Lawyers should not – really could not – strike over their own pay, as they are paid by their clients, and they have a duty to their clients that transcends the issue of whether they are properly paid. The circumstances of publicly paid teachers and lawyers are therefore really not comparable or analogous. Teachers often use their charges – “it’s for the children” – as political pawns in the salary wars, but this simply highlights the difference. Lawyers cannot ever do that with their clients.
But indirectly, lawyers should think about how this situation has come to pass for them, while teachers have no compunction about becoming enraged with far less cause than lawyers have. It is partly a crisis of faith: the public has little faith in the law and lawyers, and the same holds true – tragically – for lawyers. Did this occur in the public first and then bleed through to the legal profession, or was it the other way around?
Matt Taibbi – a writer for a rock n roll magazine – sees how bad it’s gotten:
Gary Aguirre, the SEC investigator who lost his job when he drew the ire of Morgan Stanley, thinks he knows the answer.
Last year, Aguirre noticed that a conference on financial law enforcement was scheduled to be held at the Hilton in New York on November 12th. The list of attendees included 1,500 or so of the country’s leading lawyers who represent Wall Street, as well as some of the government’s top cops from both the SEC and the Justice Department.
Criminal justice, as it pertains to the Goldmans and Morgan Stanleys of the world, is not adversarial combat, with cops and crooks duking it out in interrogation rooms and courthouses. Instead, it’s a cocktail party between friends and colleagues who from month to month and year to year are constantly switching sides and trading hats. At the Hilton conference, regulators and banker-lawyers rubbed elbows during a series of speeches and panel discussions, away from the rabble. “They were chummier in that environment,” says Aguirre, who plunked down $2,200 to attend the conference.
Aguirre saw a lot of familiar faces at the conference, for a simple reason: Many of the SEC regulators he had worked with during his failed attempt to investigate John Mack had made a million-dollar pass through the Revolving Door, going to work for the very same firms they used to police.
I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog that the law trumps economics, mainly in connection with the many posts I publish about the “financial crisis”. It should more properly be called the “rule of law” crisis. Taibbi’s column shows why this is so, and the unfortunate failure of lawyers as a group in the whole mess. It should go without saying that lawyers are required to uphold the law, even at their own expense. It does go without saying that they don’t. Taibbi is simply illustrating the point with an anecdote, but everyone knows it already.
I keep saying that law trumps economics because in practice the opposite is true, which is why a crisis over the rule of law is being called a “financial” crisis. And rather than look to lawyers to solve a crisis grounded in the foundations of the law itself, people look to economists and their charts and graphs.
The public used to turn to Abraham Lincoln; now they turn to Ben Bernanke.
None of this – the public’s waywardness, their suspicion of the law and lawyers, their endless and often silly opinions about the cause of it all from the most elaborate conspiracy theories to the most intricate and detailed statistical studies – changes the reality of the situation one iota. And the reality is, we face a very simple and fundamental choice: we can have the law, or we can have tyranny. There are no third options.
If lawyers opt out of this fight in order to hob-nob with powerful players, their decline in public estimation is more than deserved.