"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." -- William Shakespeare, Henry VI
If we took Shakespeare's famous advice about lawyers seriously, there would be a lot more people dead after the attorneys went.
Last week's horrific spectacle of Moammar Gadhafi being apparently beaten to death is a stark example of what happens when a mob takes over from the rule of law. (An interesting take on that, and an argument that it should have come as no surprise, was written by Tim Cohen of CNN.)
I'm not making any excuses for Gadhafi. He was a murderer and a thug of the highest order. But what he deserved was a trial followed by whatever punishment was deemed appropriate by a court under the laws of his own country. His death at the hands of a lawless mob wasn't justice; it was another murder. It demeaned Libyan civil society and it doesn't bode well for the future of democratic institutions in that country.
I thought to raise this issue of the role of lawyers because on the heels of Gadhafi's murder, I was invited to speak to a UW law school class. The class members are doing internships in state agencies, and I was asked to talk with them about how I worked with lawyers as mayor. I started out by joking that I just ignored them until they wouldn't go away.
But the serious answer is that lawyers kept me on the straight and narrow. It was lawyers who would raise ethical or legal considerations that I might have missed or let slide. It was lawyers who fought for us in court when we were challenged, but much more often it was lawyers who kept us out of court in the first place.
The cliché about lawyers is that they like to initiate a fight, and ads like those by Hupy & Abraham, which appears to be the McDonald's of drive-thru litigation, don't help with that image. But the truth is that the lawyers I worked with were the adults in the room. When politicians and policy makers were spoiling for a fight, it was often a lawyer who tried to find a reasonable way out of the conflict.
Like politicians, lawyers are viewed as powerful, so it's not surprising that they take their hits. (My poor mother raised one of each -- a lawyer and a politician -- but she was lucky to have two other children with respectable careers.) But the truth is that lawyers tamp down our conflicts much more then they exacerbate them. And when they do wind up in court, isn't that a better way to solve our differences then a mob in the street?
And as for Shakespeare, he wasn't actually calling for the heads of lawyers in that famous quote. In fact, he was praising them.
"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," is spoken by Dick the Butcher, an anarchist who is trying to take down the government. Shakespeare is acknowledging that the first thing any tyrant would do to gain absolute power would be to remove all the lawyers.
If Moammar Gadhafi had respected the law, he might have found himself impeached instead of impaled.
So, tell all the lawyer jokes you want. I've got some good ones myself. But at the end of the day, none of us would like to live in a country without them.