Scott Turow places lawyers at the center of America’s struggle to define values

Delivering Elon Law's fall 2010 Bryan Leadership Lecture on October 13, acclaimed writer and attorney Scott Turow presented an often hard-hitting analysis of the causes for historically low levels of trust in lawyers in the United States, acknowledging evidence of corruption and greed in the profession, while refuting broad negative stereotypes about attorneys and emphasizing the important role that lawyers play in determining national questions of value through the country's legal system.

Scott Turow delivers Elon Law’s fall 2010 Bryan Leadership Lecture.

An accomplished attorney and the author of several award-winning novels that have sold more than 25 million copies around the world, Turow explored shifting depictions of attorneys in novels and movies over the past fifty years as an indication of the country’s change in attitudes toward lawyers.

Gone is the romanticized notion of the near-perfect lawyer in the mold of Perry Mason or Atticus Finch, Turow said, replaced by portraits of attorneys who are susceptible to greed and corruption, yet still compelled to fight for justice.

“Americans are awestruck by the power and influence of the law, but they also find much about attorneys that they clearly dislike,” Turow said, describing Rusty Sabich, the protagonist in his novels Presumed Innocent (1989) and Innocent (2010), as an adulterer and who often uses the truth “conveniently.”

“The lawyers who are portrayed in popular fiction are not sentimental heroes anymore,” he said.

Media as a reflection of society

Scott Turow with first-year Elon Law students and several Leadership Fellows of the law school.

The increase in negative depictions of lawyers in literature and film, Turow argued, reflects a diminished trust in attorneys that emerged after political scandals and high profile cases of judicial misconduct in the 1970s.

“The bubble burst with Watergate,” Turow said. “Attorneys revealed themselves in some quarters as creatures of corruption.”

On top of growing mistrust in attorneys, Turow said Americans had become angry at the perceived wealth of lawyers. Noting that the median annual wages of lawyers was $110,000, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Labor, Turow said that lawyers don’t earn as much on average as people think, but that top earners in the law, making $1 million, to $4 million, to more than $10 million per year, raise legitimate concerns.

“The top incomes have grown in a way that most people find unseemly and I have to say I am on their side,” Turow said. “Lawyers and investment bankers have made themselves emblems of the widening gap in incomes in this country.”

“Americans are much less at ease about that than we might think … they are ambivalent,” Turow said. “They do have their doubts about where we find ourselves as a society.”

Turow noted that only 13 percent of respondents to a 2009 Gallup Survey rated lawyers as having high or very high standards of honesty and ethics, and that the rate of respondents giving lawyers high marks for ethics and honesty had dropped by more than a third in that annual survey since 2005.

The role of the legal system in addressing questions of value

Turow concluded that even with society’s diminished view of the profession, the public still looks to lawyers for leadership in addressing many of the most profound questions facing the nation today. Reflecting a national hope that the quest for truth and justice still forms the core of the lawyer’s mission, Turow said that contemporary depictions of lawyers in works of fiction, “still hold something in common with Perry Mason in that they struggle to do good.”

“Our profession contains more people that I admire than probably would be true in any other profession I might have gone into, but we are frail as all humans are frail,” Turow said.

Turow posited that the free market alone was not capable of resolving questions of value that form the basis upon which a number of the nation’s most important policy issues are decided, including abortion, surrogate motherhood, the death penalty, euthanasia, the right of gay people to be married, and the emerging need to define limits on genetic engineering. He also cautioned against a new level of commercialism that he said began to invade the country in the 1980s.

“[Americans] see positive potential in the law and they see in the law something that the market does not give them,” Turow said. “I think the reason people are interested in the law has to do with the pivotal role it plays in society in determining questions of value.”

First-year law student Raleigh Lancaster introduced Turow at the event, highlighting the value of the insights in his book, One L, which describes his experiences as a first-year law student at Harvard. Law school dean George R. Johnson, Jr. welcomed the audience to the law school’s twelfth Bryan Leadership Lecture since the series began in 2007. Earlier in the day, Turow spoke to a professional responsibility class and to a group of first-year law students and Leadership Fellows at Elon Law.

Click here for the announcement of the fall 2010 Bryan Leadership Lecture, including biographical information about Scott Turow.

Click here for information about the Joseph M. Bryan Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series, including a list of prior speakers and reports on the lectures they delivered.

Click here for details about Elon Law’s Leadership Program, seeking to inspire and to empower law students to take on leadership roles that address problems in the profession and those facing society.