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September 23, 2011

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

— William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part II, Act 4, Scene II

“Hell is empty, and the devils are here.”

— William Shakespeare

The Tempest, Act 1, Scene II

My profession is much maligned. Attorneys have a public approval rating right up there with that of telemarketers, door to door salesman and Congress. I don’t dispute that there are unethical attorneys just, as there are unethical accountants, unethical doctors or unethical automobile mechanics, etc. I also don’t dispute that the maligning of attorneys is not a new phenomenon.

Shakespeare had a particular fondness for attacking the profession. In fact, he attacked attorneys so often that I have an entire 80 page book, called Shakespeare’s insults for Lawyers, full of quotes from his plays and sonnets that generally put the legal profession in less than a positive light. (Then again, I also own a book called Dracula was a Lawyer. When you’re in this profession, people tend to give you birthday and Christmas presents that have a legal bent.)

Periodically, though, I come across a comment on the legal profession that strikes me as being particularly over the line. Such was the case this past Sunday when I took a moment to read an editorial by Benjamin Marrison.

Marrison serves as the editor of a certain major metropolitan newspaper in a city just to our south. His editorial dealt with the issue of public access to records and in particular to records of student athletes at OSU. I should note at the outset that I’m absolutely an advocate of the openness of public records and public proceedings. I have, for several years, argued against the sense of secrecy that pervaded the juvenile justice system for decades. As such, I have no qualms about the general point that Marrison was trying to make.

Unfortunately, during his argument, Marrison chose not to go after those in charge at OSU who make policy decisions nor the legislators who write educational privacy laws but instead to lay the blame for the lack of disclosure at the hands of OSU’s attorneys. He didn’t lament the wording of laws that provide for educational privacy. Instead he wrote, “attorneys conceal the names of athletes in records” in order to hide their misdeeds, using the mere name of the profession to attempt to give the statement a negative bent. He then lauded the work of his reporters, neglecting to mention that it was persons in the same profession — attorneys for the paper and for the Ohio Newspaper Association (an organization that the Gazette is a member of) that fight on behalf of newspapers to try to convince courts to give a narrower reading to public document exemptions.

Lawyers have few defenders in the court of public opinion. Public discontent toward the profession is understandable. People tend to come to court and to need the assistance of an attorney at the worst moments of their lives — a criminal charge, the death of a loved one, a divorce or a motor vehicle accident. When they do hire an attorney, they have a reasonable expectation that their lawyer will do all that it is ethical to advocate their position, a position that is likely to be exactly counter to the position that is held by the other side in the case. In the OSU example, lawyers for the university were hired specifically to argue on behalf of their client, just as lawyers for the newspapers were hired to advocate the opposite position. It is unreasonable and unjust to expect the legal profession to uphold its duty to individual clients and then to malign lawyers for doing so.

Just 48 hours after reading the Sunday editorial, I was starkly reminded of decency of those who practice law in this community. On Tuesday evening no fewer than 14 attorneys entered the halls of the Andrews House and volunteered hours of their time to provide free legal advice to a record high 29 clients at the monthly legal clinic — clients who would not have had access to legal services otherwise.

Their service reminded me of why I entered the legal profession and why I’m proud to be a member of the Delaware County Bar Association whose members, despite being the butt of countless legal jokes, give so much back to this community in their time, talents and public service.

David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.