Lawyer Stigma: tips and coping strategies for dealing with it

The verdict is in and the stigma has been set- unsurprisingly lawyers are not the most-liked professionals in the world. Most people, whether they will own up to it or not, will have either heard or told a lawyer joke. Although a prestigious and generally respected profession, lawyers rarely get the type of kudos nurses or firemen do. There may be legitimate grounds for this difference, but not only do solicitors rarely get positive recognition, they often get stereotyped or unfairly judged. Some people are lucky and never experience this, some can easily brush it off, but it's all contextual. And for some people, the stigma has real effects on their mental health and general happiness.

Pop culture and the nature of legal work also does little to dissuade people out of this mentality.

Of course, every profession has its good and bad apples. There has been and will continue to be conniving, unethical and obnoxious lawyers who give the rest a bad name. But on the flip side, some of the kindest, most thoughtful and downright ethical people we’ve ever met also practise law. There are lawyers working for non-profit organisations, doing pro bono and standing up for truth all over the world every day.

In a recent episode of The Beyond Billables Podcast, we spoke with Professor Jeff Giddings. Jeff was discussing legal aid and how legal services tend to get devalued in terms of public policy discussion. In doing so, he made another great point around how to handle the pressures and stigmas that come with working in the legal profession.

Lawyers often negatively get viewed or pigeonholed as litigious, aggressive and combative. This is a bad thing until someone needs a representative who will be litigious, aggressive and combative on their behalf.

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It’s a double standard that leaves many who work in the law feeling aggrieved. More old school types might scoff at this notion or even be proud of the reputation, and they might say things such as ‘this generation is coddled’.

But the suck-it-up, I’m impervious to all attitude has quite a few consequences, and we think a better approach is an honest discussion of real issues. The legal industry of late has started coming to terms with some of the stress and mental health-related issues it faces, and we are big supporters of this trend.

If you’ve ever felt stigmatised about being a lawyer, there are some things you can do about it. Below, we’ve compiled some tips to help fight the stigma and ways you can deal with some of the stress it might cause.
  • A common criticism that gets levelled at attorneys is that they are condescending, believe they’re smarter than others and speak in a language designed to confuse people. You can probably see to some degree why these stereotypes exist. Lawyers have to put in a lot of effort studying and, in many cases, there will be a huge knowledge gap between them and their clients. This is where soft relationship skills come in handy, and a little bit of effort to meet people at whatever level of understanding they’re at can go a long way.[embed]https://giphy.com/gifs/from-jude-law-bbc-one-W9RBMB3BRuIdG[/embed]
  • Approach the negative perception with humour. This may not work in all circumstances, but those who’ve got a chip on their shoulder about attorneys are likely to loosen up with a few jokes. Making fun of yourself from time-to-time is healthy anyway. It shows that you don’t take yourself too seriously and have a degree of humility. Surprise one person with this approach and you’ve likely changed a perception that could have a ripple effect. An issue like this is addressed one person or relationship at a time.
  • Another big challenge lawyers face is engendering trust. Clients may walk in the doors with preconceived notions of what lawyers are. They may also be nervous, stressed, feeling vulnerable or unsure of what they’re doing. Of course, this is highly dependant on what type of law you practise and in which type of firm. But the more you can make them feel comfortable, the better your client interaction will be - and ultimately so too their opinion of lawyers. Tone down the glass, wood paneling and expensive suits if needed - play to your clients a bit.

The above three points are all proactive steps lawyers can take in their interactions with the public to boost perception. But the truth is that the onus isn’t really on you unless you want it to be. The best thing you can do is be honest, be humble, be really good at what you do, be clear in your communication and have empathy for people. Do these things and you will be doing more than your part to whittle away the stigma surrounding lawyers - and your reputation will speak for itself.

A final few tips that can be followed if you do feel the weight of lukewarm or downright negative public opinion:
  • Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done of course, but very few things in life are truly personal, and the more we can let go the better. Stoic philosophy has a great take on this, and to paraphrase it, harm mostly comes in the form of your perception of harm, not the harm itself.
  • Get some support. Dentists are another less than popular group of professionals, and they actually have support groups to help with this. If a support group sounds extreme to you, just make sure you’re surrounded by the right kind of colleagues, the type you can be open with, who are supportive and who can pick you up when things are going poorly.
  • Keep your perspective. Not everyone will like you in life and that’s just fine. People who keep a view of the bigger picture and are paying attention to work-life balance are more likely to be unscathed by negativity. This is true when it comes to stress, overworking as well as social stigma.

Being a lawyer is a challenging job, and this is one reason why many people are drawn to it. Although it's an issue, stigma can be overcome both personally and societally with the right approaches. As stated above, this happens slowly - one conversation, experience and relationship at a time.