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Sharon Jeethan, a lawyer at the Toronto firm of Derstine Penman LLP, stands in front of the “Pillars of Justice” in Toronto on Feb. 6, 2013. Ms. Jeethan says she has grown used to hearing her profession derided whenever lawyers are mentioned at social events. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Sharon Jeethan, a lawyer at the Toronto firm of Derstine Penman LLP, stands in front of the “Pillars of Justice” in Toronto on Feb. 6, 2013. Ms. Jeethan says she has grown used to hearing her profession derided whenever lawyers are mentioned at social events. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Tired of being the butt of jokes, Ontario lawyers plan image overhaul Add to ...

What do you call 18,000 determined lawyers with a generous war chest?

Answer: the Ontario Bar Association, which, fed up with being the butt of negative jokes about their profession, is launching a public-relations campaign on Thursday. The object: to persuade people that, far from their time-worn image as greedy and over-aggressive manipulators, lawyers are actually problem-solvers, pillars of their communities and an indispensable cog in a healthy democracy.

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Two years in the making, the campaign was devised by a Toronto marketing company, Agency59. It will include a social media component where lawyers can tell their individual stories, print and radio advertising, and poster ads placed in prominent positions such as airports.

The Ontario campaign comes at a time when many lawyers and judges have raised soul-searching questions about access to the courts and the high costs of litigation. Bar associations in other provinces are watching closely with a view to launching similar campaigns, said OBA president Morris Chochla.

Why are lawyers – so essential in so many critical life situations – held in such low regard? How is it that a Google search of “lawyer jokes” can return 2.8 million results, most of them equating lawyers with dishonesty, avarice and exploitation?

Lawyers point to the confrontational nature of litigation and the fact that they are closely associated with their clients’ battles.

“In an adversarial situation involving family law, criminal law or civil litigation, you have a client and his lawyer on one side, and the other client with his lawyer on the other side,” Mr. Chochla said. “That is what ends up in the press and on the radio.”

Brian Howlett, creative director for Agency59, said that lawyers’ intelligence level and confidence may also be a turnoff.

“There is probably a bit of envy,” Mr. Howlett said. “There may also be that insecurity you get when there is someone in the room who is smarter than you. The insight that stood out for us was that we all speak well of our individual lawyers, so why doesn’t it transfer when people look at the whole industry?”

Sharon Jeethan, a 35-year-old lawyer at the Toronto firm of Derstine Penman LLP, said she has grown used to hearing her profession derided whenever lawyers are mentioned at social events. Ms. Jeethan, who formerly worked as a court registrar and legal assistant, said she emerged from law school last year bracing herself for the social castigation that defence lawyers in particular learn to live with.

“Criminal defence lawyers are the bottom of the barrel,” she said. Not only are most of them poorly paid, Ms. Jeethan said, but the revulsion people feel for accused criminals is transferred to their lawyers.

“People say that lawyers are liars; that they are manipulative people who will turn any shade of truth gray,” she said. “It’s a sad thing because at the end of the day, this is a helping profession. You are an advocate for someone, representing their interests in society and in the courtroom.”

Ms. Jeethan said that, once she identifies herself as a lawyer, people tend to open up to her. “I have yet to meet the person who learns I am a lawyer and suddenly doesn’t take me into their confidence,” she said. “They tell me their deepest, darkest secrets and want my advice.”

Paul Sweeney, past president of the OBA, said Ms. Jeethan’s experience is the norm. He said lawyers feel deeply underappreciated for their social contributions and the role they play in solving problems. In fact, Mr. Sweeney said, lawyers devote a great deal of time to negotiating and mediating outside the courtroom; contributing legal expertise to charities and community boards; and, as politicians, helping ensure that legislation and regulations are legally sound.

“We are trained to think critically about issues; to argue appropriately; to advocate on behalf of a position,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Those are skills we value. Words are what we use.”

The theme of the OBA campaign is focused on what inspired individual lawyers to attend law school. Members will be encouraged to share their own testimonials on a website and to incorporate their narratives into Facebook accounts and firm websites.

“The typical campaign would have painted them as the champion of justice and put them on a pedestal,” Mr. Howlett said. “Our objective is to humanize the lawyer, to take them off the pedestal.”

In one of the poster ads, lawyer Carl Fleck reveals that he idolized a lawyer who represented his family in a personal injury claim after a serious car accident.

“Life has come full circle, as I have had over the last 45 years the privilege of representing accident victims and assisting them in obtaining fair compensation, hopefully, in turn enabling some of them to achieve their own individual dreams,” Mr. Fleck said.

The success of the PR campaign will be gauged through public surveys conducted at its beginning and end.

“We knew this couldn’t be done overnight,” Mr. Howlett said. “We aren’t launching a new flavour of Coca-Cola, where people decide in a week if they are going to like it. We are working toward an attitudinal shift.”

 

Can lawyers rehabilitate their image? Or is their profession just misunderstood? Share your thoughts here.

 

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE ...

There are a plethora of clichés and misperceptions about lawyers – and accompanying jokes.

THEY ARE GREEDY

What’s the difference between a mosquito and a lawyer?

One is a blood-sucking parasite, the other is an insect.

THEY ARE DISREPUTABLE

Why do they bury lawyers under 20 feet of dirt?

Because deep down, they’re really good people.

THEY ARE DISHONEST

Why should lawyers wear lots of sunscreen when vacationing at a beach resort?

Because they’re used to doing all of their lying indoors.

THEY DON’T HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR

What’s the problem with lawyer jokes?

Lawyers don’t think they’re funny, and no one else thinks they’re jokes.

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