Some interesting data has emerged from a recent Populus poll conducted for Which? on random sample of 2060 great British adults aged 18 or over. The survey compares how members of the public rated various professions and occupations. So, for instance, 81% associated the words “properly trained and qualified” with doctors. The figure was 78% of nurses, 70% for teachers and 69% for lawyers. Accountants hold the middle ground at 59% whereas civil servants are marginally less associated with being properly trained and qualified (21%) than builders (22%). They are on a par with bankers 21%. Journalists and estate agents bring up the rear with 13% each.
Only 20% of the general public associated lawyers with the phrase “act ethically”. The figures for doctors and nurses were 49% and teachers 33%. Engineers were on a par with lawyers but accountants (15%) civil servants (17%), bankers (6%), journalists (6%), estate agents (7%) and politicians (7%). It would be interesting to know in more detail what drives these figures. It is perhaps unsurprising that the public do not associate “ethics” with engineers: relatively few ethical controversies centre on them, but with lawyers? Should we be concerned?
The low figure for lawyers is underlined by another finding. Consumers were asked to what extent they trust or do not trust each of the following professions “to act in their best interest”. By subtracting the proportion who don’t trust a particular group from those who do trust we can calculate a net level of trust in the general population.
Nurses score highly in trusts over 78%. Doctors 74% followed by teachers 62% and engineers 50%. The lawyers the figure is only 5%: 35% of the general public trusted lawyer stacked in their best interest 50% did not. Accountants the figure is only 1% and then we head into negative territory. Civil servants, -2%; builders -16%; estate agents -40%; bankers -54%; journalists -60%; and politicians -65%.
So lawyers tend to do better than accountants, civil servants, builders, bankers, estate agents, journalists and politicians but levels of trust are very low if these figures are correct. The sample is large and random so we can assume they represent a decent snapshot of public views. The interesting question is what is meant by the figures and why they are so low. Most public understandings of lawyers will come filtered through a lens either of understandings about the criminal justice system or more direct contact with lawyers (often through conveyancers in particular). Thus the figures may be influenced by a perception that criminal defence lawyers spend their time trying to get clients off on a technicality and that conveyancers spend their time not properly advancing property transactions. There is an alternative explanation which is that those at the top of the list are all ‘caring’ professions and public servants paid salaries by the state (although this is increasingly less true for many doctors). Lawyers are businesses in a way that doctors are not (or a re not perceived to be).
Further work is needed to understand what lies beneath these figures. Public scepticism makes it harder for lawyer to fight the political battles around legal aid and access to justice. It also makes it harder for clients to walk through the door.