Vail law column: Why are lawyers ‘sharks’? |

Vail law column: Why are lawyers ‘sharks’?

Rohn RobbinsVail, CO, Colorado

Why are lawyers called “sharks”? Why, not, instead, say, “puppies?” Sometimes you hear lawyers called “bottom feeders” but few, if any, sharks are bottom feeders. Wobbegongs and angel sharks are bottom-feeders. Goblins prey in deep water. Nurse sharks are bottom-dwellers and are pretty harmless. And that’s about it.Think back to “Jaws.” The leviathan (silent except for John Williams’ Oscar-winning score) leaps from the depths below and snatches the thrashing damsel from the surface. No bottom feeding whatsoever.So if lawyers are considered bottom-feeders, why a shark?Well, for starters, sharks are taken internationally as symbols of virility. AlI right, I made that up. Nonetheless, I like the idea of it. And there is the teensiest hint of truth to it (which, or course, is all a lawyer needs). Shark fin soup – a luxury dish in Chinese cuisine which originated in the Ming Dynasty – is thought to be an aphrodisiac in some cultures. But as much as I’d like to think that’s it, my heart tells me that’s not why lawyers are called sharks.And so, I thought I’d sample public opinion. Here’s what I came up with:”Because they pray {sic} on the week {sic} and the wounded.””Sharks often attack when they smell blood in the water or sense a distressed fish etc… just like some lawyers prey on people who are in trouble or in a difficult situation to ‘feed’ themselves”.”Because they are nasty little weasel vultures, that steal your money! They take a retainer, run the retainer dry and say to you six months later, ‘Oh I’ve lost confidence in your case, goodbye or pay me another $7,000!’ Or, ‘It’s not enough money in your case. Go home and forget about your $10,000 that your partner stole from you.'””Because they circle around victims, look for the weak ones, and feed off their trauma.””Some of them are mean, slick, and will take advantage of you, but in reality, most are highly intelligent people of all different types. Three years of post-grad school and passing the bar is not for dummies. Their title is Doctor of Jurisprudence and many do pro bono (free) work for the disadvantage {sic}. Those who work for the ACLU have the best intentions and will fight hard for civil liberties, but are often criticized or misunderstood.”

Let’s not focus on the spelling, the grammar or the diction (but, geesh! Really?) or what may accurately portray shark behavior. Personally, I kinda like the last one best, the dropped “d” on “disadvantage” notwithstanding.In any event, the public perception – based on this admittedly very limited sample – is that the lawyer-as-shark-thing has to do with preying on the weak, so let’s go there.Basically, there are two different kinds of law. There is criminal law which deals, logically, with crime. And there is civil law which deals with stuff legal other than crime. Unless you are a criminal, you probably don’t think that prosecuting bad guys amounts to preying on the weak. Most of us are in favor or prosecuting bad guys. And if sometimes someone gets charged with a crime who is not a bad guy, usually the system works and he or she is not convicted. I know, I know, there are exceptions but, eh-hem, those are exceptions.The other big area of law is “civil” law which can be divided further into two broad categories: “transactional” law and “litigation.” This stuff is pretty logical, really. “Transactional” law deals with, um… transactions; contracts or agreements of one kind or another. Here, too, you can find estate plans, real estate purchase agreements and about a zillion other quotidian things that help us sort out who owns what, who owes what to whom, and that lubricate our dealings with one another. When a lawyer “papers” a transaction (incidentally, likely one that you requested of him or her), that hardly counts as preying on the weak. You might, if fact, even be a little grateful.

Then there’s litigation. This is where the rubber of the shark thing hits the road. Litigation involves suing or threatening to sue someone. But let’s dwell on this a sec – whether you are the “sue-ee” or the “sue-or” makes all the difference. With a rare exception or two, I’ll note that lawyers do not sue people. Lawyers sue people on behalf of other people. These folks are known as “clients.” Lawyers do not run around willy-nilly suing folks on their own behalves. You’ll note that we have eliminated half the bar because they go after bad guys. We’ve eliminated another half of the remaining half because they do transactional work. That leaves at most – if my math is sharp – only 25 percent of the bar. In fact, the number is much, much less. Litigators amount to only a teensy percentage of the bar and the “average” lawyer never – I repeat never – sees the inside of a courtroom. But let’s you and I be generous, let’s say that 5 percent of all lawyers are civil litigators.Among that 5 percent, a fair amount do business litigation; one business suing another. Others file suits to protect our natural resources, to ensure our civil rights, to protect the weak or elderly, or in support of other noble causes. Some work for the government. So of our teensy five percent may some small portion actually sue one person on behalf of another.So here’s the other thing: let’s say you get mowed down by a car. You are minding your own business – perhaps standing on a street corner – and some inattentive yahoo who’s texting while he’s brushing his teeth while he’s changing the Sirius station while he’s driving rolls up on you. You are hurt and you are offended. He hurt you and it’s his fault. You hire an attorney. Now, from your point of view, your lawyer is a good guy. From the yahoo’s, the lawyer is… well… a shark.It’s all a matter or perspective.

And here is something else to chew on. Only a fool would go after the weak. Just the opposite, in fact. Generally, if a lawyer’s shark-like, he goes after the strong. The strong – not the weak – are the ones with the deep pockets. Why, forgodsake, would you go after some poor down-and-out schmoe who hasn’t got a nickel to his name? What good is that going to do either you or your client? No, who you want to go after is CitiCorp or Exxon. That, my friends, is where Fort Knox lies.One other thing we need to consider; that is the concept of the “ambulance chaser.”The character of the ambulance-chaser has probably existed in one form or another since time immemorial. Maybe he was a buggy-chaser back in the day.The particular species is the guy in the ill-fitting suit that presumably stands on dangerous street corners waiting for an accident to happen and, when it does, he scurries into action. Oh please. A guy can’t make a living that way, there are just too many corners to cover.Yes, there exists a shark or two. One can generally see them on late night TV. But they are, I assure you, a teensy, tiny fragment of the bar. Most lawyers are just out there pushing paper.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg, LLC. His practice areas include: business & commercial transactions, real estate & development, family law, custody, & divorce and civil litigation.He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7:00 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM)and seen on ECo Tv 18 as host of “Community Focus”.Mr. Robbins may be reached at 970/926.4461 or at either of his e-mail address: or

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