Essay The Plague of Violence
The Plague of Violence
Reflections after the massacre in San Francisco
BY JONATHAN L. KIRSCH AND ANN B. KIRSCH
WHEN Gian Luigi Ferri flipped the safety on his Tec-9 semi-automatic pistol and opened fire in the offices of Pettit & Martin in San Francisco last month, he shattered forever the comfortable illusion that attorneys are somehow immune to the brutality that plagues our culture. Now we know the truth: Lawyers can be victims, too. And underneath lies another hard truth: Lawyers may have contributed to the culture of violence by embracing the values of the warrior in the very way they practice law.
The plague of violence had spread to post offices, fast-food restaurants and freeway off-ramps long before Ferri headed for the 34th floor with his guns and his death-list. But the threat of a random shooting has rarely reached the air-conditioned heights and guarded courtrooms where lawyers tend to spend their days. And so the legal profession has been able to engage in a kind of magical thinking: We are ``officers of the court,'' we are the safety valve that prevents violence in society, we are above the fray. We are the solution, not the problem.
Of course, we should not overlook the fact that Gian Luigi Ferri was a severely disturbed man who demonized not only Pettit & Martin but the Campbell Soup Company and his own secretary as well. It was only a cruel twist of fate that he succeeded in turning his wrath on his own lawyers rather than one of his other imagined persecutors. But, at the same time, if we are to learn something useful and redeeming from the massacre at Pettit & Martin, we need to seek some meaning in what otherwise appears to be meaningless carnage.
The fact is that the legal profession itself has encouraged the notion that lawyers are ruthless mercenaries who seek victory at any price. It is an image that attorneys use to psychological advantage-both to intimidate adversaries and to attract clients. At the same time, the very way in which attorneys present themselves is designed to inspire fear and loathing. The tough-guy approach to dispute-resolution<197>as expressed in the bumper sticker ``My Lawyer Can Beat Up Your Lawyer''<197>stirs up the most primitive emotions and confirms the image of the attorney as a kind of paid thug. So much for the protective image of a genteel and exalted profession.
The tragedy at Pettit & Martin prompted some valuable action and heartfelt soul-searching, as well as a good deal of rhetorical hand-wringing, mostly beside the point. Charles Ehrlich, a partner at Pettit & Martin, promptly organized a laudable campaign in favor of gun control. State Bar president Harvey I. Saferstein, by contrast, appeared to blame lawyer-jokes for the slaughter. And, inevitably, at least one ``security consultant'' advocated the use of motion detectors, panic buttons and rent-a-cops as a precaution against another gun-toting client with a bad attitude.
Virtually no one, however, focused on the role lawyers themselves have played in creating the perception that attorneys are sharks. The popular culture depicts the legal profession as something brutish because lawyers too often present themselves to each other and to clients in precisely that way. Attorneys ought to pay more attention to the disturbing messages they are sending to the world when they display the bullying and menacing behavior that has come to be associated with what was once regarded as a learned profession.
We should not be especially surprised when clients pick up the theme. Fed on a constant diet of powerful and provocative imagery, they may be disappointed at what their attorneys actually achieve. And they may react with unbounded fury-whether expressed as tasteless but ultimately harmless lawyer jokes or as an act of violence.
It is lawyers themselves who stoke up some volatile emotions in their clients: anger, ruthlessness, greed and an almost bloodthirsty yearning for vengeance. ``I want you to be a tiger'' is how a client is likely to put it, and only the rare attorney is willing to suggest he is something less than a predator. Consider, for example, the following encounter, which took place not in a lawyer joke, but in the corridors of the United States Courthouse in Los Angeles.
``I was offered a case against you,'' said one litigator to another, ``by a guy whose lawyer was ordered off the case by a cardiologist. He was so stressed out by the way you practice law that his doctor said he'd have a heart attack if he stayed in the case.''
``Oh yeah? What's his name?'' said the other lawyer. ``I'll put it in the firm résumé‚.''
Of course, the dangerous mythos that surrounds the practice of law is not solely the creation of swaggering lawyers. More often than not, the client wants his or her attorney to be a kind of Rambo, a blood warrior who will achieve total victory over the client's enemies, real or imagined. And clients typically take an almost childlike pleasure in believing that their lawyers are bigger SOBs than the other guy's.
Given the competition for clients-and the prevailing culture of the law-some attorneys will be tempted to use the tough-guy persona to pander to the emotional needs of clients, even if the law is the wrong instrument to fill those needs. If I don't come across as tough and aggressive, a lawyer might think, the client will find someone else who does.
The problem worsens when attorneys buy into their own mythology: Everyone's expectations spin wildly out of control. When a client's fantasy becomes the lawyer's reality, the stage is set for someone to be victimized.
But the bar no longer can have it both ways. Attorneys cannot hold themselves out as members of a civilized and courtly profession that stands aloof from the rough and tumble of our stressed-out society-and at the same time conduct themselves with the brutish and mean-spirited behavior that has come to characterize the practice of law nowadays.
Some attorneys will be content to resume business as usual while protecting themselves from the next angry client by ``hardening'' the law office: surveillance cameras, security guards, identification cards and the other Big Brother paraphernalia of the security state. But, ironically enough, the security-conscious law office may only increase the physical and psychological distance between lawyer and client and thus heighten the sense of danger and distrust that already threatens the attorney-client relationship.
Real security will not be found behind bulletproof glass. Only when attorneys come to realize that they are accountable for the way they practice law-and vulnerable to the passions that they ignite in their clients-will it be possible to tone down the rhetorical and, one hopes, actual violence.
A lot of high-minded talk about restoring civility to the practice of law is not enough. If lawyers feel the threat of violence in their own guts, if they heed the consequences of playing the tough guy once too often, then we may be able to actually do something about the sorry image of the law. To seek refuge in comfortable assumptions and rent-a-cops, by contrast, would be a terrible mistake and a second tragedy.
Add your Comment
California Lawyer reserves the right to delete any letter at its discretion; we may remove letters that are off-topic, crude or vulgar, are of low quality or that violate the law or common decency. California Lawyer also reserves the right to edit any letter for use in its print publication. By posting a comment, California Lawyer does not necessarily endorse the views expressed.