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“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

So said Dick the Butcher, a follower of Jack Cade’s fifteenth century rebellion, in Henry VI, Part 2. This is usually taken as a jibe against lawyers, but the meaning is quite different – lawyers stood for law and order, would be in the way of the rebellion, and accordingly should be despatched. But as so often with Shakespeare, there is probably a double meaning, and the line is also a dig at lawyers present in the audience.  

Lawyers have since at least Roman times been the butt of disparaging jokes, perhaps because the need for them arises mostly in times of unwelcome misfortune, or because the antics or pomposity of some merit mockery. Few are as vivid as that of David Mellor, the British politician “Lawyers are like a rhinoceros - thick skinned, short sighted and always charging”. More gentle, but perhaps more deadly, is the remark of the great Justice Antonin Scalia “The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony and the ambiguity out of everything he touches.” Or J L Mottley “A good lawyer is a bad Christian”; there is an echo of this in a little known passage in the Sermon on the Mount: “And if any man will sue thee at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also”. This is not advice that a lawyer is likely to give his client. Or Jeremy Bentham “God works wonders now and then. Behold a lawyer and an honest man”. Or, perhaps more painfully,  J M Barrie “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”.

As for the disparaging question, how can an honest lawyer represent a client whom he does not believe, the answer was given a long time ago by Dr Johnson ”If lawyers were to undertake no causes until they were sure they were just, a man might be precluded altogether from a trial of his claim, though, were it judicially examined, it might be found to be a just claim”. Put another way, if a claim is made against you, and all the evidence is against you, but you are in fact innocent, is no one to defend you?

Lawyers are much maligned, but they are entrusted with solving the problems of their clients, and they must discharge that trust by taking on those problems with the utmost seriousness and conscientiousness, but they should never take themselves too seriously; they must be able on occasion to laugh at themselves or be caught by Mark Twain’s joke “Suppose you were a lawyer, and suppose you were an idiot – but I repeat myself”.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

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