Beware of Shysters!

“Originally published on 18-Apr-2012 in livemint in an online column ‘Lawyers Day Out’ by Anish Dayal now Senior Advocate Delhi High Court

Even though the origin of the word “shyster” is debatable, William Shakespeare immortalized it in his play the Merchant of Venice with the character Shylock. Shyster, for the uninitiated, is a medieval reference to an unscrupulous, deceptive or shrewd man, usually a lawyer! Not that Mr. Shakespeare had any particular affection for lawyers even otherwise. The great Bard of Avon in his play Henry the VIth Part II has Dick the Butcher, a relatively insignificant character, exclaim (seemingly on behalf of all humanity) “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.

The point was driven home. The feeling continues to resonate. Introducing yourself as a lawyer is like opening a floodgate, of invectives, insults, doubts over your morality and almost always the scorn and the insinuation that you are undeservedly rich! Movies and literature, have contributed in great deal to this image. Filthy rich, shrewd and knavish lawyers in history have too. Exceptions however do not make the rule. Law as a profession has an ignominious tag to it. Perhaps because it involves being the representative of a party in dispute against another party. Ergo, the other party often looks at the lawyer as the repository of all that is evil with its enemy party – the shrewd shyster, capable of spinning yarns and untruths only to help his pernicious client! And that too by earning money in the process!

Does not take too much to figure out the real story here. Lawyers are mandated by their professional codes to be indifferent to the morality and cause of their client. Lord Denning, a celebrated judge of the English courts once stated that the obligation of a lawyer is to represent his client, no matter how unmeritorious the case, no matter how “rascal the man may be” and no matter how “undeserving or unpopular his cause”. David Pannick in the introduction of his book “Advocates” states: “The professional function of the advocate is, essentially, one of supreme, even sublime indifference to much of what matters in life. He must advance one point of view, irrespective of its inadequacies. He must belittle other interests, whatever their merits. It is not for the counsel appearing in court to express equivocation, to recognize ambiguity or to doubt instructions. His client is right and his opponent is wrong. The wider consequences can be left to the judge or jury to consider.” As one client put it to a moralistically inclined lawyer: “I want your advocacy, not your judgment”!

Whatever it be the nature of the role would forever have lawyers walking with the millstone around their neck of being shysters. Strange though that despite this, most parents now have a cause for celebration when their progeny get admission to law school! Maybe, the corporate avatar of the lawyer is less a shyster, advising in relative anonymity, a company in its mergers and acquisitions. No doubt, a litigating lawyer, a counsel in court is more on a razor’s edge and operating in more emotive circumstances. The job being to persuade, using tools of analysis, advocacy and oratory. He has a disbelieving judge in front and a shivering client at the back. And an equally (if not more) worthy opponent lawyer, beside him.

Wonder how this translates into envy for the legal profession. In a recent US Career survey, attorneys were ranked at 82 in a list of 200 jobs ranked on the basis of environment, income, outlook, stress and physical demands. While a software engineer topped the list in scoring the most (and therefore being the best optimum career), even an accountant, a philosopher and a judge scored way above lawyers! Attorneys were sandwiched between an Author at rank 81 and a Medical General Practitioner at 83. While the legal profession scored 36 on the “stress” scale which was a wee bit more stressful than a “nuclear decontamination technician” (at 34.6) and much better than a commercial pilot (scoring at 59 on the stress indicator), most others scored way below on stress levels. With the amount of radioactivity on display in courts, it is no wonder that lawyers and decontamination workers share similar stress levels!

So have a heart for poor shysters. The multitudes of them who do not appear on primetime television or do frontline cases in the Supreme Court, are probably toiling hard in mofussil towns, district courts, poring over mounds of papers and spending hours with clients to ascertain facts in order to plead their cases, navigating through arcane legal procedures and caselaw reports, in order to eke out a living. Often with manual typewriters and a half broken chair and table to sit on. Such is the revulsion with the profession, that I have seldom heard anyone having a shred of sympathy for this lot when they see them in ubiquitous black coats near government offices, lower courts or notary desks.

Some parts of literature though have taken kindly to the profession. The celebrated fictional English barrister Horace Rumpole (in a series by author John Mortimer) is perhaps best known. Rumpole is the classic English barrister practising at the Old Bailey (the criminal courts in London), unapologetic, insouciant and least philosophical.  He is witty, eloquent and underpaid and does not mind doing cases for the downtrodden and underprivileged, as long as they have legal aid! His motivation, money and survival. Rumpole’s world is a hearty mix of courtroom drama, backroom crises, irritable judges and hostile witnesses. Rumpole ponders and fears that lawyers will “soon be replaced by a couple of chartered accountants and a good computer” and is probably (and thankfully!) not completely correct even half a century later. However, Rumpole’s regret that his profession inhibits him from being able to say “exactly what he thought” since he had spent his whole life being “other people, fraudsmen, a few other gentle murderers…I had remarkably little time to be Rumpole”…. is chillingly true. However one of my favourites of classic Rumpolish irreverence and brute truth with people pretending innocence is when a lady witness pleads that she is only the boy’s mother and has nothing to contribute. Rumpole sarcastically retorts: “Oh don’t underestimate yourself, Madam. You have bred three sons who have given a great deal of employment to the legal profession!

As long as such mothers and sons exist, shysters can’t complain, can they?!

Anish Dayal is an advocate at the Supreme Court. An alumnus of Cambridge University, he works closely on policy and legislation, media, entertainment and sports law

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