the first thing we do, let’s kill all the stereotypes


“Who are your parents? Are you from a legal background? What, No! Good, I always say, don’t marry within the same fraternity otherwise you are genetically disposed to produce idiots for offspring”.

These lines laden with sarcasm that comes with the rough and tumble of age was stated by a Professor during the first day of law school. Despite a keenly cultivated habit of spring cleaning law school memories, this exchange has stayed with me for several reasons. Many of these cause me mild angst; though today let’s just concern ourselves with the form of the comment which goes toward deprecation of the legal profession.

It is no joke, that the general public views lawyers as some form of mystics. It commences from the form of legal language, which is long and winding, where every phrase and word is a term of art, defined, referenced and interpreted. Lawyers might as well invent their own letter, for the alphabets seem incomprehensible to others. The lack of comprehension meets a sense of theatrics with the ceremonial attire of the black gowns and the white bands. All these information asymmetries when viewed externally must seem as a forced screening of a foreign language movie without the subtitles. The practice of law by default excludes and alienates others even though it naturally affects and governs them.

Many lawyers relish this heterogeneity, more confuse it for exclusivity. It is with this sentiment that they resist popular depictions of the profession. The most popular of them remains Bollywood which though known for many things is not known for fidelity to its subjects. When depicting lawyers it falls within the traps of channeling popular class resentment against the profession. The criticism is not against specific depictions but the generalisations it makes along the way. What makes this worse is that these generalizations become specific to individual lawyers, where they are chided by friends, family and naturally by clients, for being liberal with the truth and social mores.

Some lawyers would say that this is simply not true, the legal profession contributed to the Indian freedom struggle, initiatives for human rights and politics. This is simply not true. It is my opinion, to qualify for such social redemption, a lawyer needs to ostensibly step out of the profession with a qualification prefixed before the LLB. The lawyer here is subservient to the human rights, public interest, environment or civil liberties controlling the vocation.

While many lawyers continue with such descriptors, each year a movie comes out depicting the profession with the usual monikers. In such situations lawyers do whats natural to them. They file petitions, they approach the courts. They seek judicial remedies for what essentially is a problem of information flows. It is my firm belief even if such judicial remedies are successful, the writ by repressing an existing sentiment pronounces the negatives about the profession. Though I believe that such negative portrayals do affect the perception of lawyers, the correct approach to reinforce the boundaries between fact and fiction is through better and authentic information.

Take for instance, the famous line from Shakespeare’s play King Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. Many know this quote even though they have not read Shakespeare. Popularly directed as a joke towards lawyers, it is actually in praise of the profession. The line which was uttered as part of call to rebellion, underscores that the first to stand up for liberty and sanity would be persons who were trained to read and write. Hence a need to kill them all.

I realize that one essay and a convenient line from Shakespeare does not make my point valid. I also agree that the power of cinema is tremendous and cannot be matched by such writing. We require deeper structural changes in the profession. My point is limited, one of the first steps in such a change, is greater inclusion and participation of non-lawyers. Its a measure which will be achieved more effectively through a change in attitude rather than legislation. Its a hard task. The way I look at it, its a double handed duel against negative stereotypes and intellectual incest.

(Picture of Henry V of England Painting contained in “The Royal Collection”)

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