Are There Any Truly Altruistic Lawyers

May 1, 2009

dollar-sign-manScott H. Greenfield, a criminal defense attorney, just argued a case before New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. He was discouraged to find out during oral arguments that even the judges in New York’s highest court do not have much faith in the altruism of lawyers. You can read that interesting post here.

A singer, Tom Paxton, expresses a sentiment similar to those of the judges in the Court of Appeals in his song. One Million Lawyers. Here’s the chorus, just to give you an idea:

In ten years we’re gonna have one million lawyers,
One million lawyers, one million lawyers.
In ten years we’re gonna have one million lawyers.
How much can a poor nation stand?

My Criminal Procedure professor took a poll of the law students in his class to see how many people went to law school in order to do something positive for the world. Almost half of the students indicated that they chose law school because they wanted to accomplish something positive as lawyers, whether that be as prosecutors, defense attorneys, Legal Aide attorneys or some other kind of public service type of law.

Mr. Greenfield also indicated that any attorney, whether or not they work in a practice area that is more openly public service oriented, may be moved to contribute to society by writing simply for the sake of education, intelligent discussion, and spreading knowledge. Some start blogs, write Law Review articles, or write articles for other publications and newspapers.

In any case, it would certainly be an oversimplification to characterize all lawyers as dollar-sign-eyed money fiends.

Picture courtesy of inmagine

One Response to “Are There Any Truly Altruistic Lawyers”

  1. Jim Maloney Says:

    It should be obvious to any judge that not all public communication coming from a member of the bar is necessarily commercial speech, which appears to have been the issue in Mr. Greenfield’s case. Here’s just one example: I am a former merchant seaman and now a lawyer, and, several years ago, wrote letters to elected officials and posted a web page,, about the dangers created to tanker crews by a very old Nassau County ordinance that requires gasoline transfers to be “boomed” or confined, which greatly increases the risk of an explosion or conflagration that could kill or seriously burn the crew. My motive was not to generate business for myself, but simply to urge the County legislators to have another look at the ordinance, which a judge had criticized as possibly dangerous way back in 1975. My communications were obviously related to a matter of legitimate public concern and were motivated by a desire to protect tanker crews, not to generate business. Is it fair to say that my letters and web posting are entitled only to the watered-down First Amendment protection afforded commercial speech simply because I’m a member of the bar?

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