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David Pickup

Senior Partner, Head of Mental Health Law, Pickup & Scott

The bad guys? Public perceptions of lawyers

The bad guys? Public perceptions of lawyers


David Pickup examines the public's fascination with 'bad lawyers'

Why are we fascinated by bad lawyers? I mean morally bad – not incompetent. Is it we secretly admire their exciting lives, or wonder how they can get away with it? I started watching the latest series of the American drama Better call Saul on Netflix – the story of how a lawyer becomes the go-to advisor to drug dealers (linked to Breaking Bad on a chemistry teacher who becomes a drug dealer). That seemed a bit grimmer than Better call Saul – and a long way from Horace Rumpole, if you can remember that far back?

Popular portrayals

Like many lawyers, the fictitious hero in Better call Saul has a certain charm and attraction. He is vulnerable – and, like many, has a varied CV. At one point in an earlier series, he even strayed in ‘elder law’ – making wills for older people. Does this sound like anyone you know yet? He finds himself popular and in demand – and for a while everything goes well, but it does not last. He has a complex relationship with his brother, also a lawyer, professionally respected but suffering with his mental health. His life partner is a promising lawyer who is fêted by big firms. They and the viewer must wonder what she sees in Saul. Again, sometimes, life can be stranger than fiction in lawyers’ personal relationships. The thing about Saul is he is a likeable rogue. Although the background to the story is fairly grim (drugs, money laundering and murder), he outsmarts rivals and crooks. He has a passion of justice in his own way – a real modern-day Robin Hood of sorts.

Due diligence

One thing struck me – the prevalence in popular culture of a seeming public a fascination with ‘bad’ lawyers. Perhaps this applies to us too. Most of us read the back pages of the legal press first. After looking to see who is recruiting, we look at the lists of interventions and disciplinary hearings. I suppose I want to check I have not been struck off or had an intervention and no-one told me about it (I once read a person with the same surname as mine had been struck off and that nearly gave me a heart attack!). There is sometimes a feeling of schadenfreude at someone else’s downfall – or simply curiosity about learning from what went wrong? There is always plenty to read, as the legal press is full of stories about such things. You wonder why some of them did it – and what they were thinking? Sometimes it is obvious they would get caught. Those who are plainly dishonest, you have little sympathy for, if any. Others simply got into a mess, panicked – and then had a downward spiral. Grim and depressing reading which leads us back to why bad lawyers are seemingly so engrossing to learn about?

Bad lawyers in history

I read book about a real life historical bad lawyer recently – The Poisonous Solicitor: The True Story of a 1920s Murder Mystery – by Stephen Bates, about Herbert Armstrong, a country solicitor who worked in Hay on Wye on the English-Welsh border, and was tried, convicted and later hanged for the poisoning of his wife. He was the only solicitor to be executed for murder – though I do not think he was the first solicitor to face capital punishment. Several books exist on this murder – with the latest questioning whether the conviction was safe. Certainly, the trial was unusual by our standards. The judge was described as: “a member of the prosecution” – never a good sign. Armstrong’s life story has professional rivalry and jealousy, poisonous chocolates – and the downfall of a pillar of the local society who was an ex-army officer, churchwarden and freemason. If he did not kill his wife, then someone else must have. An interesting question that has been argued over for years. Again, perhaps life is stranger than fiction here.

A reality check?

Solicitors in television dramas rarely have such exciting lives. There are few television series about lawyers – unlike medical dramas, of which there are many. Solicitors are usually invisible, because we do the main work – not just appearing in court but interviewing and finding witnesses. Solicitors occasionally have walk on parts for extras who sit silently while the suspect is interviewed. While: “Perfection is the enemy of perfectly adequate,” as the Saul series suggests, isn’t it about time we started to give the public a proper view of what we do in the popular media? We may not all be rogues, and it might help the public, and our clients in general, better understand what we do. Here’s to the good guys…  

David Pickup is senior partner of Pickup & Scott, and head of the mental health department: