The Atticus Effect: Has Trump made attorneys popular again?

Feb 16, 2017, 5:32 AM | Updated: 3:42 pm
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LISTEN: The Atticus Effect: Has Trump made attorneys popular again?

Kellye Testy knew perceptions had shifted when, purely by accident, she bumped into a couple of her former students while having dinner in Seattle.

Related: Washington’s travel ban lawsuit is back in court

Testy, dean of the University of Washington School Of Law, said the two men – now attorneys — had just arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Excited, they gushed to her that they had engineered the legal proceedings which grounded an aircraft and stopped U.S. immigration authorities from deporting legal immigrants in the hours following President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration ban.

Then, as they loudly gabbed about the evening’s events, a surprising thing happened: The other diners broke out in applause.

“The whole restaurant was, ‘Woo hoo!’ and applauding these guys,” she recalled. “It was an amazing scene.”

And it wasn’t the only one. Across the country similar and surprising episodes of lawyer love are playing out. YouTube videos show pro lawyer chants at San Francisco International Airport and “thank you lawyers” at Dulles International Airport. Law schools are reporting a recent wave of interest in taking the LSAT. This meme has been shared thousands of times nationally on Facebook: “Hug a lawyer today. They are now first responders.”

The wave of pro-lawyer sentiment in the wake President Donald Trump’s election and subsequent executive orders and cabinet appointments has caught even the most thick-skinned, skeptical attorneys a little off-guard.

Jorge Baron, lead attorney and executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said it’s nice to have the general public see lawyers as the good guys – at least for a while.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as the good guys,” Baron said laughing. “It’s always appreciated when other people think highly of the work that you are doing.”

The Atticus Effect

UW political science professor Michael McCann, a national expert on lawyers and society, said the profession hit its hero height during the civil rights era. Specifically, the book and movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and its lawyer paragon Atticus Finch had a seismic effect on lawyer appreciation.

“There’s no doubt that in the 1960s – the 50s through the 70s – that the image of the heroic lawyer, the Atticus Finch, was really central, was very influential,” McCann said. When the American Bar Association in the ’60s and ’70s asked why people enrolled in law school, “They mentioned ‘Atticus Finch,’ all of the time, like 90 percent.”

But in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the tide turned. Increasing civil litigation, few examples of lasting social change pushed by noble lawyers, and even the proliferation of lawyer jokes, put the profession back in a dim light.

McCann said many lawyer jokes are simply rewritten old ethnic jokes, particularly those that were directed at Jews. The proliferation and popularity of these contributed to the idea that lawyers primarily are greedy and self-interested.

An example: A lawyer dies and goes to Heaven. “There must be some mistake,” the lawyer argues. “I’m too young to die. I’m only 55.” “Fifty-five?” says Saint Peter. “No, according to our calculations, you’re 82.” “How’d you get that?” the lawyer asks. Answers St. Peter, “We added up your billable hours.”

See You In Tort

The image became plaintiffs and their attorneys suing McDonald’s over hot coffee, of a country with lawyers and lawsuits running amok.

“And in fact, social science shows that it’s not true,” he said. “We are not among the most litigious societies.”

Historically, the anti-lawyer sentiment turns around when the public feels that the country’s founding principles are under threat. The civil rights movement was one. And the legal fights with the Trump administration are proving to be another – at least for now.

Doug Honig, who has been the spokesman for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union since 1990, said lawyer love can ramp up when constitutional questions come into play.

“Lawyers are often on the front lines of defending the Constitution,” he said. “Lawyers go to court and try to hold the Trump administration accountable for violating the Constitution. And I think there’s a lot of appreciation for that right now.”

Testy said it is about time. Lawyers, she said, should have a thick skin and don’t need to be loved to be good and vital. That said, law school inquiries are up at the UW and she’s enjoying the warmth from their moment in the sun — for as long as it lasts.

“The more the world understands what lawyers do, the more we can help make the world a better place,” Testy said.

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The Atticus Effect: Has Trump made attorneys popular again?