Who’s afraid of the big bad lawyer?
In Henry VI, part two, Shakespeare famously wrote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This type of sentiment might make someone think twice before signing up to take the LSATs. Now here’s the good news: The public treats us with deference. I would say they are actually afraid of lawyers.
Most of use have little to no contact with lawyers during childhood. I have yet to see some fifth grader saying to his mother, “You know, maybe we can set up an appointment with a lawyer to get my last will and testament done. After all, if something happens to me, I want to ensure a proper transition of my hockey card collection.”
My first communication with a lawyer took place after visiting a dentist in Montreal when I was a teenager. He fixed a filling and sent us a bill for $25. My father, who earned not much more than that per week as a tailor, thought the bill was outrageous. We sent the dentist a check for $12.50. My dad reasoned going 50-50 was fair.
The good dentist called us about the alleged shortfall. Unfortunately, the phone call did not resolve the issue. I don’t recall the full conversation, but I do remember my dad telling the dentist he would not rip him off like that were he to alter his pants.
Shortly thereafter, we received a letter from a Jacobsen, Samuels and Lafleur (or something akin to this) saying Dr. Haberman had retained them to recover a debt of $12.50. In addition, they claimed $15 for the cost of this letter.
We were not quite sure what this all meant, so we took it to our rabbi, who explained to us that this was a “lawyer’s letter.” He said they were demanding a total of $27.50, and if we didn’t pay it, they might take us to court.
My father was not shaken. He said if they took us to court, he would tell the judge he was a World War II veteran and a good Canadian citizen, and $12.50 was more than fair to fix one small tooth. It sounded like a good legal argument to me. My dad obviously had an innate sense of the concept of quantum meruit.
After further discussion with the rabbi about the potential hazards of litigation, my father reluctantly agreed to make an offer of an additional $5. We had the rabbi relay the offer, and it actually was accepted. In retrospect, I wondered why they settled for $5 of a $27.50 claim. Maybe they were spiritual and afraid of the ramifications of rattling the rabbi. Who knows?
My father was impressed by the fact that the lawyers claimed $15 “just for writing a letter.” He said he hoped the extra $5 would go to the lawyers, not the dentist. He also told me to consider becoming a lawyer. He said those guys have ways to squeeze you like a lemon. They must earn a fortune. I took serious note of his wisdom. And here we are.
I have noticed that lawyers generally do get treated with deference. I found whenever I used to call a doctor’s office on a case, dropping my professional standing often got me a quick response.
True, most often callers get a message saying something like, “We’re busy right now. If this is a medical emergency, call 911; otherwise, please leave a message, you peasant.” (OK, but often judging by the gatekeeper’s smug tone, you can readily infer that part about the peasant.)
The response was different, however, when I left a message saying something like, “I am the lawyer for George Bentley regarding a malpractice matter.” I would get a return call from the doctor in a flash. Their voice messages might as well have said, “And if you’re a lawyer calling, please press two. The doctor is in surgery. But then again, he works too hard … he can use a break and will return your call STAT.”
Come to think of it, this is the kind of deference we lawyers should expect.
I actually had a treating specialist physician who said to me, “You’re a lawyer. Lawyers scare me.”
I thought he was kidding. Then one day I sent him a letter on my office letterhead with some questions about the treatment options he was suggesting. He did not answer me but instead wrote to my primary care physician, noting that he could no longer keep me as a patient because he felt threatened. I have no clue why. I didn’t even demand $15 for my letter.
It does help to let people know you’re a lawyer. Recently, my good wife opened a can of sockeye salmon and noticed what looked like glass fragments. She did not eat any, of course. She sent an email to the company’s customer service department, which replied that the glass-looking pieces were actually “struvites,” or transparent harmless chemical compounds not uncommon in canned fish. They trusted she would continue to enjoy their salmon. They offered no compensation. This did not sit well with me.
Though retired from practice, I brushed off my armor. I sent the company an email noting that most people have never heard of struvites. The stuff looked like glass to us, and almost ingesting some was a good recipe for alarm and distress, anxiety and mental shock. I added, “I trust we need not escalate the matter.” I signed it “Marcel Strigberger, barrister, solicitor and avocat.”
Within a day or two, I received a reply from the company’s risk management office. The message said they apologized for any inconvenience and though the struvites were safe to ingest, but they were prepared to make amends by sending us a $100 voucher for Costco or Walmart, along with a case of sockeye salmon. They also trusted we would continue to enjoy their salmon.
This was not good enough. I wanted more. I expected them to say something like, “We do not take product complaints seriously. We usually brush off all complainants. If we hear from a lawyer, however, that’s different. We listen.”
My good wife suggested that we didn’t push it further. We accepted the offer. But I know for sure the “barrister, solicitor, avocat” part propelled them into action.
Mark Twain said, “Always do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Perhaps this is why the public may be apprehensive about lawyers. Because in this imperfect world, we aim to let right prevail, and not everybody is happy with this endeavor. Who knows?
Meanwhile, I am pleased to say that we are enjoying those complimentary cans of sockeye salmon.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.