August 26, 2015

A lack of trust: What lawyer jokes tell us about our fear of the law and each other

Tim BallRebel Columnist

The Globe & Mail ran a contest for the best humorous description of a Canadian. One caught my attention. It said a Canadian is a person who obeys a stop sign at three in the morning, even if nobody is watching. 

The observation is not even mildly amusing because the implications behind it speak to a fundamental tenet of what makes Canada a great nation. Canadians sleep safely knowing that most other Canadians are obeying the law, even when nobody is looking.

The central point is society is built on trust, once that is gone the society disintegrates.  George Macdonald said, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than to be loved.” Lack of trust is a major reason people hold poor opinions of politicians. People who are close to politicians know. It is why Henry Kissinger said, “90% of the politicians give the other 10% a bad reputation.”

Trust in society is a much wider concept, as the Globe & Mail story infers. It is also a much more profound concept and once weakened deteriorates rapidly because you trust, or you don’t trust. It is an absolute. At best, we treat people with increasing caution once trust is betrayed, no matter how slight.

A former student who became a lawyer told me he took a course in contract law from one of the best contract lawyers in Canada. The opening comment in the first class was: If you sign a contract there is no problem; if you don’t sign a contract, there is no problem. We will now have a course in contract law.

Despite the disdain for contracts expressed by the law professor, lawyers urge everyone to have contracts. What this says is that you do not and cannot trust anyone. When that becomes the mindset, the society is in trouble. It is manifest among younger people in the belief that they only broke the law if they got caught. They also know they can hire a lawyer to prove they didn’t break the law and the more money you have, the better lawyer you can get to break the law and any contract.

Most people view the role of law in society differently than those involved in the law. They think they are defending the people, but most see the law, lawyers, and enforcers of the law as intimidating. I heard of a lawyer in England who had a standard letter that he used to exploit this fear. It said: This issue has come to our attention, and if you do not deal with it immediately, we will do things that will astonish you.

In my view and experience, the law has drifted a long way from justice. The intimidation of a letter from a lawyer is a result of several factors. A majority believes it is a legal document. It isn’t, it's a letter from a lawyer. They know, however, that to deal with the lawyer’s letter they need a lawyer, and that is very expensive.

They also know that their lawyer will contact the other lawyer, and they work out a deal between them that are rarely to the benefit of either client. Only the modern version of the law could allow the evolution of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP). True there is now anti-SLAPP legislation in 8 of 10 Canadian Provinces, but it doesn’t exist in Ontario or British Columbia.

Some lawyers, like Ezra Levant, are aware of the misuse of the law and is very active in fighting its misuse. He works tirelessly to make the law about justice, but in a measure of the use of law for intimidation he is served with legal actions for his troubles. As most understand, the law is supposed to protect people; it is a long way from that objective. It is the weapon of choice for the rich and powerful used to silence anyone who challenges them.

The fact that the law is increasingly incestuous exacerbates the problem. Lawyers are the predominant group among members of parliament. They are making, interpreting and applying the law. They have made the language of the law arcane beyond reason and understanding by anyone other than a lawyer. Law Societies appoint lawyers to sit in judgment of unprofessional behavior by other lawyers.

The number of jokes about a group reflects people's disdain or lack of trust for them. There are probably more jokes about lawyers than any other profession. The cost of lawyers is reflected in the joke about a Winnipegger, who said the winter was so cold he saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets. This is summarized by the joke that there are no jokes about lawyers they are all true stories. But there is nothing funny about the cost of the law or the loss of justice. 


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commented 2015-09-02 22:49:21 -0400
True, some lawyers (like politicians) give the whole profession a bad name. But as a lawyer, I have to say that I’ve bent over backwards to please clients, including reducing my bills, not billing at all for services rendered, etc. Some clients are simply impossible. They don’t want to listen to the legal advice they’ve hired you to provide, they just want to use you as a weapon to further whatever twisted vendetta they’ve built up in their heads and mistakenly identify as “justice”. Sometimes people want to hire you to go after a few hundred dollars, and refuse to see the idiocy in spending three or four times that just on legal fees. I’ve given a lot of free legal opinions (often after spending several hours reviewing documents and checking legal precedents) and sometimes have had to tell the person that they had no case. For my trouble, I am occasionally yelled at, reported to my managing partner, and threatened with a complaint to the Law Society.
I’ve spent hours and hours reviewing client files and bills, talking to the client on the phone and writing 7-page letters to clients painstakingly explaining already detailed, and clearly reduced invoices (sometimes by more than half), only to have the client (who’s already gone through 3 or 4 lawyers PRIOR to coming to me) fire me and refuse to pay.
There is a very good reason lawyers have one of the highest rates of mental illness, suicide, addiction and why so many simply choose to leave the profession, especially in the first five years of practice.
commented 2015-08-27 22:58:30 -0400
I once replied to a lawyer’s letter thus……

“Sirs, It would appear that somebody saw fit to take a piece of your official office stationary and wipe a bull’s ass with it…because just about everything south of the list of partners in the heading is bullshit”……….:-)
commented 2015-08-27 16:00:07 -0400
Does your, “… reams of legal interpretations in the following books.”, refer to the Biblical Ordinances for the Israelites, that came down from Mt Zion on the back of the Ten Commandments’ tablets – ordinances like not eating unclean food like pigs, oysters, or dogs?
I recognize your use of the monumental history of man – or liars, er lawyers – ‘screwing up a good thing’, I just don’t think the Ordinances are a good example – unlike your other example of the Canadian Constitution and I assume it’s implied destruction through it’s Patriation from Britain and the imposition of Trudeau’s so-called Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The reason I even ask is because of your use of the term, “… low level foot-pad police constable…” made me wonder if I had missed some joke, or not?
“A footpad is an archaic term for a robber or thief specialising in pedestrian victims. The term was used widely from the 16th century until the 19th century, but gradually fell out of common use.”wiki

A Toronto lawyer back in the 70’s, while wondering how to resolve a case suddenly exclaimed to me, “Bullshit baffles the brains!”
commented 2015-08-26 18:09:49 -0400
It is a huge problem. And it hurts the little people the most. Large companies and moneyed individuals settle claims as a matter of course as it is cheaper than the alternative. So when the little man gets threatened or dragged into the mix the expectation is still for them to settle up, to forgo money, even if they did NOTHING wrong. Lawyers definitely do use those threatening letters and the average Joe has to choose between losing money up front in a settlement or facing a more expensive option of fighting it out. And the brashness of the whole system is even if a plaintiff wins often they don’t see all their costs back. Something is wrong and I think the modern day legal behemoths are part of it. A small law firm can stick to principle, but you have to sell your principle once you join that firm. What you gain is the promise of full time work at the expense of what is truly right. Consider an average Joe who defends against a murder charge. So he is let go upon winning the criminal case, but is stuck with $100,000 in legal fees. Doesn’t seem like a win to me. The idea that a person with means can outspend the little people doesn’t strike me as just at all.
commented 2015-08-26 16:22:51 -0400
The problem goes as far back as the Exodus. Ten simple rules and then reams of legal interpretations in the following books. Then fast forward to the legal system in Canada, a pretty simple statement of rights and freedoms in the Constitution, followed by reams of legal interpretations by the legal system driven by lawyers. Except for the low level foot-pad police constable, who knows real life, I have no faith in the legal system. Legal justice, another oxymoron.
commented 2015-08-26 12:48:50 -0400
I couldn’t agree more. The last and only time I used a lawyer, what really got to me most was the fact that they actually had the nerve to bill me for sending me the bill. It wasn’t the amount, it was the principle. I don’t mind paying for services rendered, but if they want to get paid the bill is their responsibility, not mine. That’s just dumb….. and rude!