How many times have we heard a lawyer called a name like "ambulance
chaser," "shark," and "shyster?" Usually, this
derogatory, name-calling is triggered by cases in which an attorney represents
a person who has been injured by another's negligence or misconduct,
or represents a defendant who is charged with a serious crime. Ironically,
where you hear these unflattering names most is in cases involving one
individual up against the power of many – whether it be a mighty
insurance company, a well-funded corporation, or an over-zealous government
prosecutor. A virtual David and Goliath scenario. So why such scorn for
those who represent "David?"
The fact is that is the lawyers who represent the less powerful in our
society - injured victims, criminal defendants or those who are wrongfully
arrested and convicted - deserve praise, not scorn. Why? Because those
lawyers may be the only ones who stand up to the powerful government and
corporate machine; the ones who will speak for those who cannot speak
for themselves; the ones who will serve as watch dogs against negligence,
misconduct, corruption, and over-zealousness, by those who hold the power.
The clarity of this shines no brighter than when analyzed against two tragic
New York stories in the news recently. The first was an article in the
New York Times uncovering a culture of prisoner abuse at Rikers Island
– the main New York City jail. The Times reported that "over
an 11 month period last year, 129 inmates suffered 'serious injuries'-
ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the Jail's clinics to treat
– in altercations with correctional department staff members."
The other tragic story involved Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who was
placed in a choke-hold - the restraining maneuver that cuts off the flow
of blood and oxygen to the brain – by police during an arrest for
allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Mr. Garner died during the arrest.
Notably, in 1993, the NYPD banned the use of choke holds while making
These stories underscore the real fear felt by the citizens of New York
who find themselves on the wrong end of the law. In a much broader way,
these events also compel us to ask significant questions like: Who will
protect future victims of this abuse? Who will police these officers when
they violate the law, and their own rules as well? Who will hold powerful
entities, like the government, the police and corrections officers, accountable
for their actions? Who will promote change in the policies of powerful
entities forcing them to better protect the public they serve. The answer
Ask yourself this: What if Mr. Garner's death during his arrest was
not videotaped? What if the Times did not uncover the internal report
confirming so many injuries to inmates at the hands of some correction
officers? Would we learn the truth? Would all of the facts be uncovered
and disclosed? Government cannot police itself. Departments like the Internal
Affairs Bureau of the NYPD and the Inspector General of New York can only
do so much. It takes the lawyers for the injured and abused, to protect
the less powerful and to effectuate true change for our communities.
There is no doubt that being a police or correctional officer is dangerous
and stressful. Despite this undeniable reality, their duty to conduct
themselves in accordance with their internal regulations and our laws
must not be forsaken.Some say that lawsuits against police and correction
officers impede their job and interfere with the way they conduct themselves
from day to day. In other words, some argue, lawsuits against officers
jeopardize a safer society. To them, I say the opposite is true. It is
our duty as lawyers (and citizens) to question the conduct of the government
and fight against corruption and the abuse of power. Lawsuits can do just
that. And the lawyers that file these lawsuits do not impede the system,
but rather, protect it.
Such lawsuits serve as a watchdog for the conduct of the government - when
there is little else to protect individuals from the forces of power acting
To a large extent, a lawsuit against the police or corrections department
is no different from a lawsuit against an insurance company or a big corporation.
Lawyers that sue on behalf of those injured in an accident or as the result
of a defective product are no different from those who sue to protect
a person's civil and constitutional rights. The lawyer's goal
is the same: to protect individuals against the powerful and the wealthy
and to act as a real impetus for positive change.
So, the next time you hear lawyers called those derogatory names, keep
this in mind.
By the way, in Henry VI, Shakespeare's character who said "let's
kill all the lawyers" was referring to corrupt and unethical lawyers
– he actually admired lawyers who fought for justice in society.