Public portrayals and perceptions of practitioners
David Pickup considers whether we need to change lawyers’ appearance in the media
I do not know if you saw the recent series called Marriage on BBC1. It was shown over two Sunday and Monday nights – and shows scenes from a couple’s life. It stars Nicola Walker and Sean Bean, who are both brilliant actors – and also James Bolam, written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski, who wrote the comedy series Mum. It had mixed reviews because it is an unusual drama – with no chases, homicides, reality TV stars – or much of anything. The story consists of their humdrum life – and there are prolonged scenes without any dialogue, but where you know what the characters are thinking but dare not say. Beneath the banality there lies much drama about bereavement, redundancy, love and an odd scene featuring some ointment.
We all know one
It is also notable for having a truly obnoxious solicitor, Jamie, played brilliantly by Henry Lloyd-Hughes. The way his character is portrayed as treating people is appalling. We all know people – and, dare I say it, lawyers – like that. His character never seems to do any work, is rude to everyone – and seduces a work experience student, leading to a cringeworthy scene with her father. I was hoping someone would hit him. A new intern arrives who is male and looks about 12 (but then again, they often do). With lawyers having a public image like this, why do students still want to do this work?
Setting the scene
The office set admittedly looks a lot like a solicitor’s office. Clients wait on plastic chairs outside the lavish fee earner’s room, a bit like a doctor’s surgery. However, the desks always look tidy with no piles of files, papers or food wrappers. I think I should offer myself as an adviser on what solicitors’ offices are really like, or let a film crew come here. Perhaps not. The office has the worst entrance from the car park I have ever seen. It looks like the back of a cinema.
A central event in the story is a conference which the solicitor attends – as does Emma, the wife. It is unclear if she is meant to be legally qualified or not, but she is keen on promoting her idea for a website and networking. You can hear her parroting marketing phrases, without any understanding or much interest. She wants to get on with her career and that means rubbing shoulders with other boring, rude lawyers to whom she has to be pleasant. I have been to similar conferences, where there is plenty of embarrassing small talk and people trying to sound enthusiastic about developments. The often luxurious surroundings – and the forced, false bonhomie of these things – is captured in the series. It is all about grey men in expensive suits trying to look interested and convince themselves the cost was merited. I love the touches like Jamie, the solicitor putting on sunglasses, only to take them off again the next moment. Underneath his rudeness and bluster he has his own issues.
How do clients seeing this see us?
Jamie disgraces himself at the conference but he gets his comeuppance. The viewer is left astonished that the wife does not give up her job and tell him where to go. Like that one person every one of us will inevitably know, I wonder what made him like that – and whether he was decent once? Having seen this latest popular portrayal of practitioners, I wonder what the public think of us lawyers. Does the image of a horrible rich lawyer resonate? The truth is probably that most of us are closer to Sean Bean’s character – who is a man no-one wants or listens to but is just trying to do his best. At least the anti-hero is not colourless and has some lines to say. In reality, solicitors are never going to get a series like Casualty or Call the Midwife. The law is not seen as being as dramatic as the health profession. We do not make people better, or live longer. We (or some of us) are perceived as getting bad people off crimes, stopping police doing their job, or getting money out of accidents. Not a very attractive or appealing prospect to many people. But perhaps, perversely, it is a refreshing change to see a fictitious presentation of a truly awful rotter and cad – because, hopefully compared to him, at least the rest of us look better.
David Pickup is senior partner of Pickup & Scott, and head of the mental health department: pickupandscott.co.uk