“The First Thing we Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers”

Portions of the following article were published in the Delaware County Daily Times on Monday, August 19, 2002

By Murray S. Eckell, Esquire

Shakespeare’s Tribute to Trial Lawyers

The great trial lawyer Daniel Webster said—”Justice is the greatest concern of man on earth.” Lawyers play many vital roles on the worlds stage but none more important than preserving, protecting and perpetuating the rights of citizens, both individual and business. Since lawyers play such a vital role in our democracy, why has lawyer-bashing increased exponentially in recent years and what should the response be?

Ironically, the rallying cry of the lawyer bashers has become Shakespeare’s quote from Henry VI— “THE FIRST THING WE DO, LET’S KILL ALL THE LAWYERS.”

Those who use this phrase pejoratively against lawyers are as miserably misguided about their Shakespeare as they are about the judicial system which they disdain so freely.

Even a cursory reading of the context in which the lawyer killing statement is made in King Henry VI, Part II, (Act IV), Scene 2, reveals that Shakespeare was paying great and deserved homage to our venerable profession as the front line defenders of democracy.

The accolade is spoken by Dick the Butcher, a follower of anarchist Jack Cade, whom Shakespeare depicts as “the head of an army of rabble and a demagogue pandering to the ignorant,” who sought to overthrow the government. Shakespeare’s acknowledgment that the first thing any potential tyrant must do to eliminate freedom is to “kill all the lawyers” is, indeed, a classic and well-deserved compliment to law as a profession.

Today’s Jack Cades can readily be found throughout the insurance industry and in manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies. They want to dismantle the tort system. They want to disrupt the judiciary and abrogate the common law, to the detriment of the rights of individual citizens, consumers, and injured persons who deserve competent representation and adequate redress for harm done to them.  Their cry is “down with the lawyers.

Why? Because trial lawyers are the first line of defense to prevent irresponsible elements from dismantling the tort system, disrupting the judiciary and abrogating the common law to the detriment of the rights of individual citizens.

Doubtless, if Shakespeare could put quill to parchment to script analogous phrases for modern corporate tyrants, he could couch their refrain thusly—

  • If America’s democratic institutions of right to trial by jury and election of judges are to be abolished, first let’s discredit all the lawyers;

  • If American citizens’ common law rights to full recovery of legal damages are to be abrogated for the benefit of profit-motivated corporations, first let’s defame all the lawyers; and

  • If America’s judicial system of tort reparations is to be remolded into a profit mechanism for the insurance industry, first let’s degrade all the lawyers

(Of course, Shakespeare would have done it in iambic pentameter.)

Lawyers are the beneficiaries of a rich and unparalleled heritage from the past, the bearers of a huge mantle of responsibility in the present and the preservers and protectors of the individual rights of American citizens for the future. Reduction of that effectiveness is a major goal of legal detractors since the power of the people has always been tied inextricably to the influence of lawyers. As Alexis de Tocqueville stated in Democracy in America in 1835— “I cannot believe that a republic could subsist at the present time if the influence of lawyers in public business did not increase in proportion to the power of the people”.  President, John Adams said “No civilized society can do without lawyers.”

The idea of silencing lawyers in order to destroy individual freedom has been around for centuries. But it has been raised to a new art form by corporations without consciences. Heedlessly they compound their wrongs against consumers and workers with assaults on lawyers and crass distortions aimed at the mass media. Trial lawyers are the first and perhaps only defense against such perfidy, and history demonstrates that lawyers will prevail.

In seventeenth century England, Oliver Cromwell, in an effort to thwart individual freedoms, decreed that no more than three barristers could congregate outside of court. He recognized that the greatest threat to his own tyrannical dictates was the collective commitment of the London Society of Barristers to the principles of freedom expressed in the Magna Carta.

In twentieth century Europe, Adolph Hitler, the quintessential despot, asserted “I shall not rest until every German sees that it is a shameful thing to be a lawyer.” After each tyrannical attack, lawyers  have emerged like the Phoenix from the ashes, to redefine individual rights and freedoms. Again today, lawyers must prevail, because their cause is  right, just, and the perpetuation of freedom is inextricably interwoven with their continued protection of individual rights.

But, lest legal adversaries underestimate lawyers, and the legal heritage is forgotten, we must all recall that before there was an insurance industry, lawyers were defining the rights of free citizens under the Magna Carta.

When the Robber Barons of nineteenth-century America sacrificed the lives of their employees in unsafe workplaces throughout the country, lawyers and judges in courtrooms across America were breathing life into the Constitution and gradually and painstakingly protecting, on a case-by-case basis, the individual rights of American citizens.

Lawyers must never lose sight of the respect which they deserve for the role they play in society, a role which extends far beyond the courtroom. Lawyers must bring their individual and collective talents to bear to defend freedom with pro bono work for the disadvantaged, consumer protection advocacy for those not yet killed or maimed by defective products, protection of the civil liberties of every individual whose rights are threatened.

We see lawyers in the philosophical forefront of our great country we see him with quill in hand in Monticello and Philadelphia and in Washington as he defined in writing the rights of American citizens. His name was Thomas Jefferson and he was a lawyer.

We see him advocating in Quincy, Massachusetts and in Philadelphia, Jefferson’s Deal of independence for adoption by the continental Congress.   His name was John Adams, and he was a lawyer.

We see him addressing the delegates of the Second Virginia Convention, exhorting the battle cry of the republic, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” His name was Patrick Henry and he was a lawyer.
Where would America be today if these lawyers had been successfully silenced?

We see them at the birth of America  defying the tyrannical dictates of King George Ill at the risk of their lives as they lead the revolution against the Stamp Act of 1764; we see twenty-five lawyers among the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence; we see them drafting the Articles of Confederation and as leaders of the Constitutional conventions of the new states. Their legions include John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall and they were lawyers.

Where would America be today if these lawyers had been successfully silenced?

Thirteen of our first sixteen Presidents from Washington through Lincoln were lawyers. In addition to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, their numbers include such shapers of America’s destiny as John Adams, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. 27 of our 43 Presidents were lawyers, which makes it all the more ironic that much of the recent lawyer bashing emanated directly from the White House.

  • The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer.
  • The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a lawyer.
  • The Criminal Courts of the early 20th Century, Clarence Darrow, a lawyer.
  • Crying out for the civil rights of her black brethren, in the halls of Congress, Barbara Jordan, a lawyer.
  • Justice is colorblind, Thurgood Marshall, a lawyer.
  • The consummate consumer advocate, Ralph Nader, a lawyer.
  • Southern Poverty Law Center, the son of tenant farmers, Morris Dees, a lawyer.

As has been often proven over the centuries, Shakespeare was right— if tyranny is to prevail, tyrants must first kill all the lawyers. Equally relevant today, if corporate tyranny is to prevail, corporate tyrants must defame, degrade, and thereby discredit all the lawyers. Once again, the timeless wisdom of Shakespeare is proven. He would have made a great trial lawyer.

It will serve us all, legislators, judiciary and lawyers, to recognize that the ultimate aim of the tort reform movement is the abrogation of those individual rights and liberties of American citizens, consumers and tort victims which are the bedrock of American democracy. As Newsweek magazine stated—“The war against the lawyers is at bottom a camouflaged aggression against the jury system”.

Fortunately, there are multitudes in our society who recognize the lawyer’s role and respect them for it. As his holiness, Pope John Paul II, stated— As trial lawyers, you are committed to the resolution of conflicts and the pursuit of justice through legal and rational means.
As long as trial lawyers continue to preserve the independence of   judges and juries; as long as trial lawyers uphold by due respect, daily practice and distinguished conduct the dignity of the bench and bar, and most importantly, as long as trial lawyers continue to vigorously and unselfishly answer their noble calling of protecting the inalienable rights of tort victims, abused consumers, and the downtrodden in our society, then the profit motivated prattlings of that unholy alliance of tort deformers will take their proper place in the alleyways of anonymity.

Those of us who are and have been trial lawyers, who carefully screen the worthiness of the causes we advocate, are extremely proud to be members of the great legal profession.  We must continue to conduct ourselves so that for centuries to come the refrain of the tyrants and demagogues must remain— “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for the compliment. We shall strive to deserve it.

Substantially all of this writing has been edited, and added to, with his permission, from a longer work of Howard L. Nations, Esquire, Houston, Texas.