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April 1, 2013

How did lawyers get such a bad reputation?

One of the world's largest law firms, DLA Piper, is being sued for overbilling, in a case the New York Times notes will not help the public's low opinion of lawyers. Emails disclosed in conjunction with the suit show one lawyer describing another's approach as "churn that bill, baby!" When did lawyers get such a bad reputation?

The Middle Ages. In the days of the Greek and Roman empires, lawyers generally came from noble, wealthy backgrounds, worked for the public good, and were respected for it. It was often considered dishonorable to collect legal fees, and a lawyer's skill was in his rhetoric rather than in his specialized knowledge of elaborate legal codes. Even when Emperor Claudius eventually permitted legal fees in Rome, he allowed only fees that were less than 10,000 sesterces — several years' pay for a legionary, or only about a week's earnings for some senators. After the Dark Ages, lawyers were required once again by the ever expanding labyrinthine laws of the Catholic Church, the most complex organization of the Medieval era. The church's seemingly endless codes required specialized interpreters, but the lawyers were criticized for selling their God-given talents to the highest bidder. For this greed and "venality," they were attacked viciously in morality tales and satirical poems. One medieval poet wrote, "They are no psalmists, but the harpists of Satan." Others compared them to Judas, explaining that "he who sells the truth for money sells Christ, who is Truth." Their venality was associated particularly with the their tongues, and in the moral spook stories called the exempla, their tongues were in turn blackened, torn from them, or, in one case, scorched by fiery horses and cattle stuffed into their mouths.

Though lawyers weren't compared to Judas every time they took a fee, the perception that lawyers were greedy and opportunist continued through the Renaissance and into the early modern era. An early lawyer joke can be found in Shakespeare's King Lear, when Lear tells the Fool that his speech is "nothing, fool." "Then 'tis like the breath of the unfeed lawyer," the Fool replies, delivering the equivalent of the aphorism "A lawyer's opinion which costs nothing is worth nothing." Many dramas even compared lawyers to the devil himself, or depicted the devil as a lawyer. By 1832, the lawyer-devil archetype was so tiresome that the editor of one book of jokes complained that it was a "hackneyed character."

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