Monday, February 28, 2011

An Odd Case of Snobbery

Last week I wrote about why I do this job, why money isn't a primary force, and why civil law gives me the creeps. Here's the blog entry.

A couple of colleagues mentioned the post while we chatted in court and asked me about the attitude that many civil attorneys have towards those practicing criminal law.

That attitude is best described as an odd case of snobbery.

Let me demonstrate with an example from my previous job. It was at a civil law firm, one of about 50 attorneys who did everything from wills, to real estate, to civil litigation. Towards the end of my time there, work was slow (I did civil litigation) and I was trying to be creative in bringing in work (and therefore income) to me and the firm.

I suggested that, as a former ADA, I take a few criminal cases. Maybe some DWIs. Nothing too sordid and grubby, after all this was a law firm. But even the wives, husbands, and children of civil lawyers get arrested for DWI, right?

I talked to four of the senior lawyers there, one-on-one. They all appreciated my attempts to think outside the box, to generate revenue for the firm. But every single one of them stiffened when I mentioned doing criminal work. Oh no, they said. We don't do that here.

When I pushed it, when I actually told them I thought they had a prejudice against the practice of criminal law, they essentially admitted it. They conceded that they couldn't give me a logical, coherent reason why the firm shouldn't engage in a little criminal work. They admitted, point blank, that there was a prejudice against such a practice, and that they were willing participants in the prejudice.

I was pretty surprised. Each of these men had said things like, "We couldn't possibly engage in that kind of business," and tempered their distaste with "You know, some of my best friends are criminal defense attorneys."

Remind you of anything?

Me too.

So, what we ended up with was, instead of providing legal services to clients and those in need, the firm opting to continue to pay me a salary to do very little. Instead of bringing in much-needed cash I was twiddling my thumbs, all because of this pre-existing disdain for the practice of criminal law. A disdain no one could adequately explain.

As you may know, I grew up in England and went to school with some startlingly snobbish characters. People who came from long lines of the upper crust, people with more money than brain cells, frankly. And these folks, usually around the age of 8, would deride the people they described as "nouveau riche." Families whose money hadn't come from plundering the Armada or the Belgian Congo.

My response was always, "Oh, so you're mocking those who actually earned their money, rather than had daddy give it to them?"

Actually, I never said that, I just thought it--as a kid, one has an over-riding wish to fit in.

But I think the analogy is fair: there exists an inexplicable and hypocritical prejudice that has no basis in objective reason.

And, to explore this subject further, later in the week I shall point out that, in fact, not only is the prejudice misplaced, but one could argue (hypothetically, of course) how any disdain could legitimately come from criminal lawyers towards civil lawyers.

Inverse snobbery, you might say.

Hypothetically speaking.


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I too have noticed this snobbery. I would also note that even within those firms that include criminal defense work, mostly white collar stuff, the lawyers who do that work are treated as second-class citizens.

  2. Jamison: Thanks. It's bizarre, isn't it? Like I say in the post, check back later to see why WE should be snobs to THEM. :) (And forward to all the civil lawyers you know.:))

  3. It's bizarre, but what is more bizarre is encountering a civil lawyer in court who thinks he needs no criminal law knowledge at all to handle the case. It's insulting, and the bad economy has made it even worse.

  4. The phrase I use to describe people like those you grew up with is that they "have more dollars than sense."

    Growing up in England, though, it would be "more pounds than prudence?" "More crazy than quid?"

    Unfortunately, "pence" doesn't have a homophone that means "wisdom."


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