“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made”
Franklin D. Roosevelt
I have been reminded in recent weeks that lawyers generally have much to be proud of.
With a few exceptions, I have now been exclusively a civil trial lawyer for the past 36 years. In my first three years of practice my civil and criminal work was probably split 50/50.
In 39 years, I think that I have read about and heard all of the various slurs that our enemies love to label us with. They do not deserve repeating here. Although I think I have heard most of them, I do not repeat lawyer jokes. I just don’t see the humor there.
I would be given to understatement to say that lawyer-bashing is commonplace in the media, in the board room, in medical schools, and elsewhere. There are circles in which we as lawyers are actually reviled. In my small community, there are doctors who not metaphorically but literally would cross the street to avoid contact with me or any of my partners. This is despite the fact that we do very little medical malpractice work and have not sued a local doctor in probably 25 years. Incredibly, there are actually some doctors who won’t even accept a patient if they have a lawyer.
Some comedians have made a living off of lawyers and events that have occurred in the civil justice system. Whether fact or fiction.
The general public holds us in low esteem as well. One can look to the latest Pew Research Center survey in which 4,000 participants were asked, “does this profession contribute to society?” Out of ten professional choices, lawyers came in last.
Still, I am proud to be a lawyer. A “suing lawyer”, as some country folk would say. An ambulance chaser, as my critics would snarl, with the same look on their face one has after drinking spoiled milk or finding a hair in one’s cream gravy.
I am proud, because we lawyers have a proud history in this country and in my state. We do contribute to society in very meaningful ways. We have always been “the man [or woman] in the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt penned. We help breathe life into the United States Constitution every week, in courtrooms all across this nation. We are all safer as a result of our hard work. We force bad guys to be accountable. This is one area where there really is a trickle-down effect.
We have always been willing to serve. We have always been willing to stand up against bullies.
Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 25 were lawyers. The document was signed on July 4th, 1776. The issuance of the Declaration was considered an act of treason against the British Crown. I can assure you the Brits had a dim view of American lawyers, and especially of the author of the first draft, Thomas Jefferson, who was also a lawyer.
When the 55 members of the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1789 to draft our Constitution, 31 of its members were lawyers.
Over one-half of the Presidents of the United States have been lawyers. In dangerous times, we have turned to lawyers to be our leaders.
Even those who slept through American History class will recall Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer from Illinois, as the president of the United States during the Civil War. He led us during one of the most critical times in our history. He led us out of slavery and started the process of reuniting the country. You probably know that Woodrow Wilson was our president during World War I. You may not know that he was a lawyer. Franklin Roosevelt, a lawyer, was our president during most of World War II.
Here in Texas we have had many brave public servants who were also lawyers. At the Alamo where 183 Texans were annihilated by the Mexican army commanded by Santa Anna 6 of those killed were lawyers. The commander of our forces at the Alamo was William Barrett “Buck” Travis. Travis was a lawyer who came to Texas from South Carolina in 1831. He practiced law in the southeast Texas town of Anahuac. He is perhaps best known for the letter he wrote from the Alamo addressed “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World”. He knew he was facing impossible odds as Santa Anna’s troops numbered over 2,000 men but in the face of certain death, Travis wrote, “I shall never surrender or retreat”. And “I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his honor and to his country. Victory or death.”
James Butler Bonham was already a hotshot lawyer in South Carolina when he came to Texas to volunteer his services. He said, “in the present struggle of Texas, without condition, I shall receive nothing, either in the form of services, pay, or land, or rations.” Bonham left the Alamo twice to unsuccessfully try to recruit reinforcements. He returned to the Alamo for the last time through enemy fire to a certain death. He spat on the ground when he was urged not to throw his life and away and said at least Travis deserved to know that no one was coming to help.
He, like Travis, died on March 6, 1836 defending the Alamo.
The Mexican supremacy was short-lived, however, as on April 21, 1839 at the Battle of San Jacinto in Harris county just outside present-day Houston, 800 Texans with a battle cry of “remember the Alamo” defeated 1,500 Mexican troops led by Santa Ana. Those Texans were led by Sam Houston, a lawyer.
“The first thing we’ll do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Many times our detractors quote this line from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. What they fail to mention is the context of this statement. These words were uttered by Dick The Butcher who was a follower of Jack Cade an anarchist who desired to be king. The words were intended by Shakespeare to be a compliment as Cade knew that the only way to be king would be if the lawyers, the defender of laws and freedom were taken out first.
A very famous historical, political figure uttered the following words which I will change somewhat to not give the speaker away immediately, “I shall not rest until every citizen sees that it is a shameful thing to be a lawyer.” Any guess of who that was? Another hint would be, “I shall not rest until every German sees that it is a shameful thing to be a lawyer.” Adolf Hitler one whom we are proud to call an enemy.
Hitler also famously said, “nationalism and socialism had to be redefined and they had to be blended into one strong new idea to carry new strength which would make Germany great again”!
Now, we as civil lawyers have a distinguished list of enemies: the polluters, the reckless manufacturers, and the tyrannical governmental entities that control our lives. Our enemies are those like the asbestos manufacturers whose products, even today, kill thousands every year.
It is our duty as trial lawyers to engage in the fight against oppression by those in the Government who are supposed to serve us. To hold accountable the venal manufacturers who put profits over people. To call out the trucking companies who cut corners to gain an unfair advantage over their competition. To impose responsibility on hospitals and health care providers who ignore their Hippocratic oath to first do no harm. It is not a job or a way to make money – it is our duty.
Our only weapon to fight against these evil forces is trial by jury. Trial by jury is a right preserved by the 7th Amendment to the United States Constitution. John Adams said that “[r]epresentative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty”.
*Post written by John Sloan, a certified Texas & New Mexico Personal Injury Lawyer that has been practicing law for over 36 years. Click Here to read more about John Sloan’s honors, education, and certifications.