“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” – William Shakespeare.

We have all heard the line above being thrown to express negative perception against lawyers. Lawyers are at the heart of a number of crude jokes, which shows that some may hold lawyers in a rather low level of esteem. The general perception is that lawyers can be untrustworthy. In fact, just last year there were reports about 21 rogue lawyers who committed breach of trust and cheated their clients of over RM30.4 million. The nobility of the legal profession, which early on in history was regarded as a calling instead of a mere vocation, has now been diluted by the conducts of irresponsible lawyers.

The legal profession is a profession that is rich in history. Many of those who attended law schools and practised law also ended up influencing social and political changes that shaped the world as it is today. Iconic figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were lawyers by profession. Over half of all presidents of the USA came from legal background. Even our founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was a lawyer before he became the first Prime Minister of Malaysia and so were our 2nd and 3rd Prime Ministers.

Given the fact that many influential and revered figures were also lawyers, why does the public often see lawyers in a bad light? One of the factors may be misconception, since most of the public still do not truly understand what do their jobs entail. What is routine for lawyers may be completely foreign for a lay person.

When do you need a lawyer?

The wide reach of law in everyday human activities would mean that most individuals will inevitably find that they will need a lawyer at least once in their lifetime. When a person gets into trouble with the law and is arrested, only lawyers can rescue him. When someone wishes to buy a property, lawyers will be needed to draft the contract and ensure that the terms of the contract are favourable to their clients. Setting up businesses may also require the expertise of lawyers to navigate the extensive legal requirements. Divorcing couples would need legal representation to secure their respective interests. If an individual is wrongfully terminated from employment, he may also find himself looking for lawyers to represent him in seeking reinstatement. At the very least, when a person dies, a probate lawyer may need to be engaged to handle the process of estate administration.

Duty of Lawyers

Lawyers are strictly governed and remain bound by codes of conduct. Lawyers are not allowed to act for a client where there is a potential conflict of interest. Once engaged, they owe a duty of skill and care to their clients to ensure that all matters are conducted with reasonable diligence. Any breach of rules would expose lawyers to various repercussions, such as being subjected to disciplinary proceedings, payment of fines, suspension from practice or struck off from the Bar.

Apart from their duty to clients, lawyers are often amongst the first persons to speak up and fight against injustice and bring about the required social and political changes. Where there are any violations of human rights by the executive or law enforcement, lawyers will often bring such issues under the spotlight. Lawyers also contribute to the society at large when their services are engaged to draft a new piece of legislation or to amend existing ones to cater to the changing needs of society. In Court, lawyers are involved in the development of law by advancing legal arguments that will have significant public consequences. Draconian and unjust laws are often challenged by lawyers to protect the interests of the public.

While it could not be denied that legal services are indispensable to society, the stereotypes of lawyers being untrustworthy and deceitful beings must be repaired. In fact, there have been several mechanisms put in place to improve public confidence. Where there is a professional misconduct of lawyers, complaints can be lodged against them with their Disciplinary Board.

It is important for lawyers to bear in mind that they are first and foremost officers of the Court, subject to the duty of upholding justice without regards to their personal interests. Lawyers must be independent and speak truth to power, without fear or favour.