Too many lawyers? Or is it too few?
by Don Cayo


In parts of Newfoundland where the dialect is thick and rich as gooey molasses on home-made bread, “lawyer” sounds a lot like “liar.” But given what people so often say about legal practitioners, I sometimes wonder if this mispronunciation isn’t mischievous and deliberate.

Elsewhere, the profession fares no better. Since Shakespeare’s day, writers — especially newspaper letter writers in this modern era — are always ready to rant and rail about lawyers. They’re one of the few minorities that it’s still acceptable to dump on — even politically correct comedians give them no respect. They’re the guys we all love to hate.

I’ve no doubt that some of the sour grapes is pure jealousy. It’s based on the belief that all lawyers are rich — a belief that flies in the face of reality, especially for a lot of ill-paid, debt-ridden, recent graduates of law school.

There’s also envy of a lot of the power and influence that lawyers are seen to have. Every coffee-shop and bar-stool critic can tell you (and often does at tedious length) what’s wrong with politics these days: Too many lawyers get themselves elected.

Or do they?

The uncharitable might say that any lawyer at all is one too many. But the facts suggest the legal profession is falling on politically hard times, at least in this region.

Since Frank McKenna left the New Brunswick legislature late last year to make some real money and practice law instead of making it, his province’s legislature has only four lawyers left. The Nova Scotia House has just three.

Indeed, Nova Scotia has more doctors or farmers or former bureaucrats elected to office. It has twice as many business people. It has an equal number of ex-military men. It has almost as many plumbers and pipe-fitters, or authors and researchers. And, if you’re really looking for who to blame for the woes of the world, it even has a couple of — shudder — journalists.

New Brunswick MLAs are just as diverse, maybe more so. As I perused thumbnail biographies of the members I found several who were hard to classify. They’ve had such chequered careers, or they couch their backgrounds in such vague terms, that I had to add a new heading — gadfly — to my check-list. I put eight in that category, some like Premier Ray Frenette or Natural Resources Minister Allan Graham who’ve been in office so long they may have forgotten what they used to do.

But the New Brunswick House is also home to people who in a previous life worked as an accountant, a political assistant, a chemist, a nurse, an historian — even a movie-maker. In other words, both provinces’ Houses are — with the exception of a glaring under-representation of the poor — peopled by the kind of folks that most of us would find in the houses next door.

Which might lead me to conclude that the foibles of our politicians are not the fault of any one occupational group, but rather a reflection of the short-comings found in us all. Except I’ve been holding out — neglecting to mention the occupational group that really dominates public life in these provinces.

It’s teachers. They’re hands-down the biggest power group these days, with their ranks holding 10 seats in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

I could — if there weren’t in my own family a teacher I love dearly — mount an argument that it’s these pedagogues, not the out-of-office lawyers, we should be blaming for our woes. They have all that idle time on their hands, they only know what’s in the book, those who can do… you get the drift.

But I fear that would simply replace one prejudice with another. Scape-goating teachers or lawyers or any other group merely deflects attention from the core question: Why is it that people are so often dissatisfied with the decisions taken by their politicians? Why do we hold in such low esteem people who have won high office?

The real problem, I think, is us. Pretty well all of us. We’re ever-ready to clamour for our own special interests; we’re lackadaisical in our thinking about what is genuinely the greater good. We debate in slogans. We vote from habit or on knee-jerk instinct.

In short, we do get the government we deserve.

And if we’re going to fix it — if we’re going to get governments that focus on the real priorities and forgo grand-standing and short-term, feel-good, ineffective meddling in every issue-of-the-week — we to have to stop blaming somebody else. We have to re-examine the kind of political performance we collectively reward and the kind we punish. We have to be better citizens in order to get better legislators. Because, in the end, the people in office are no better and no worse than those of us they represent.