Overcoming the Negative Stigma Associated with Attorneys

The Verdict Is In: Many People Aren’t Fond of Attorneys

It’s no coincidence that nearly everyone has heard a lawyer joke. While it’s difficult to admit or acknowledge the negative feelings that people have toward one’s own profession, the numbers don’t lie: in a Gallup poll from 2015, only 4% of respondents rated the “honesty and ethical standards” of lawyers as “very high.” In that same poll, more than one-third (34%) rated attorneys’ honesty and ethical standards as low (25%) or very low (9%). A landmark study for the American Bar Association found even harsher truths underlying the popular perception of attorneys:

  • 74% of those surveyed agreed that “lawyers are more interested in winning than in seeing that justice is served.”
  • 69% believed “lawyers are more interested in making money than in serving their clients.”
  • 57% claimed that “lawyers are more concerned with their own self-promotion than their client’s best interests.”
  • More than half (51%) agreed that “we would be better off with fewer lawyers.”

The news isn’t all bad for attorneys as far as public opinion is concerned, but it’s crucial for lawyers to recognize that there are significant obstacles (if not outright barriers) between potential clients who need help and the attorneys who can expertly provide it.

Below, we have analyzed data from a wide variety of sources to assemble a comprehensive picture of how the public feels about attorneys. And we have translated that information into actionable steps that law firms can take to overcome those perceptions through online marketing in order to draw in new leads and get new clients.

What Your Potential Clients Think: More Details About Public Opinion Regarding Lawyers

The statistics above reveal that people in general have a lukewarm, if not negative, view of attorneys. This is reinforced by other beliefs that people indicated about attorneys in the ABA survey:

  • Only 39% agreed that “most lawyers try to serve the public interests well.”
  • A mere 26% agreed that “the legal profession does a good job of disciplining lawyers.”
  • A full 73% felt that lawyers “spend too much time finding technicalities to get criminals released”

Even if you don’t practice criminal law, you are fighting against a negative perception of the legal profession in general. Few people understand that there are many different types of attorneys who focus on specific areas of the law from personal injury to criminal defense to debt collection. (And even fewer realize that there are more nuanced focus areas within all of those types of practice!) To the average person (especially those who have not worked with an attorney before), a lawyer is just a lawyer — like all the others.

And it’s not just one or two studies that show people generally dislike attorneys:

  • The Pew Research Center found that not only are lawyers at the bottom of the list of professions who “contribute a lot to society’s well-being” (behind clergy, artists, journalists, and even business executives!), but their reputation is falling – from 23% who thought they contributed a lot to society in 2009 down to a mere 18% in 2013: a significant decline in just 4 years and steadily losing ground to business executives (who grew in popularity from 21% to 24% in a time when America has faced some of its worst economic hardship as a result of bad business practices).
  • In that same Pew Research Center study, over one-third (34%) of those surveyed said lawyers contributed “not very much” or “nothing at all” to society.
  • Between 1973 and 1993, a Harris survey showed people’s confidence in lawyers plummeted from an already-low 24% to a measly 7%.
  • Avvo discovered that 59% of people surveyed tried to solve their legal issues themselves, and even those who did want to speak to a lawyer only wanted basic information in order to handle their legal issue themselves, which doesn’t indicate much confidence or trust in attorneys.
  • A Princeton University study discovered that while lawyers are rated on par with doctors, scientists, and professors as far as their “competence” is concerned, they scored at approximately the same level as prostitutes on the scale of “warmth” (below literally every other profession listed, including truck drivers, politicians, taxi drivers, construction workers, garbage collectors, and more). The researchers noted that “People report envy and jealousy toward groups in this space [of high competence and low warmth]. These are mixed emotions that include both admiration and resentment.”

But where do these views come from? Part of the problem is that even though 22% of Americans claim to have had a legal issue in the past year that they could have hired a lawyer for, only 12% actually do hire an attorney. So, many people haven’t had occasion to actually work with an attorney, which means they are forming their ideas about attorneys based on other sources, such as the news or even popular depictions of attorneys on television or in the movies.

Regardless of where people’s opinions have derived from, these perceptions influence their behavior when they are in need of an attorney’s services. For example, the ABA study and others have found that approximately half of individuals who may need a lawyer do not plan on hiring one. This suggests that half of the people who need your services are put off enough by lawyers in general to not bother seeking you or your competitors out.

However, this also means there’s a huge opportunity to attract and win over an entirely new cohort of potential clients.

Taking Public Perception into Account for Online Marketing with Audience Personas

In one of our earlier blog posts, we discussed how the vast majority of your potential clients will make up their mind about you before they ever make contact. Furthermore, a 2012 study by LexisNexis and Martindale-Hubbell found that 76% of potential clients used the internet at some point in their search for an attorney, and we’re confident that number has only risen in subsequent years.

Unfortunately, this means you likely won’t get a chance to talk or meet face to face with potential clients to help dispel their negative perceptions of attorneys and steer them in your direction. The good news, though, is that you have a golden opportunity to use your website as a tool to enlighten and engage with your audience. The important thing to remember is that you need to actually know who your audience is.

All too often, we see attorneys who miss the forest for the trees in their efforts to draw potential clients in through online marketing efforts. Much like the public making false assumptions about attorneys based on limited experience, many attorneys make false assumptions about their potential clients based solely on information about their own satisfied former clients.

While this is a good place to start when you’re initially developing a target audience persona, it ignores all the statistics above. In particular, for every person who decided to hire an attorney (not necessarily at your firm), there’s another person who needed an attorney but didn’t hire one. Furthermore, the myriad studies regarding online behavior as well as our own in-house data show that the majority (approximately 90%) of individuals who eventually become your clients vetted you and made up their mind before they ever contacted your firm, which means you’re ignoring all the potential clients who didn’t choose your firm and who you never came in contact with. And, of course, basing your perceptions about your ideal clientele on only your most vocal proponents ignores a group of people who may have valuable things to say: your unhappy clients.

But a small or misrepresentative sample size isn’t necessarily the main problem with using your own satisfied clients as archetypes for your ideal potential clients. Another issue that plagues attorneys as they consider who they should be marketing to is a sort of confirmation bias that develops over time. Naturally, your happy clients are going to have positive things to say about attorneys, about the legal process, about your firm, etc. It’s easy for these beliefs to sink in and inform how you think “most people” feel – especially when your firm is doing well and most of your clients are happy. Anything that does not confirm these positive notions will seem aberrant and then become inconsequential and forgettable.

Savvy attorneys take a wider view. They build audience personas that take into account what has worked (and failed) in the past; they also acknowledge the reality of marketing online to people who need an attorney but who are also skeptical about lawyers and the legal process in general. Below are some tips to help you do the same.

How Law Firms Can Overcome Misconceptions Through Online Marketing

In order to effectively leverage your law firm’s digital marketing efforts to draw in and engage with new clients, you need to keep several core concepts in mind.

1.Know Your Audience

Law firms cannot ignore the elephant in the room or allow themselves to view the world through the rose-colored glasses of their happy former clients’ approval and praise. The reality is simple: most people don’t like attorneys. Knowing this is the first step that will inform all of your other marketing efforts.

The good news for attorneys is that once someone knows they definitely need a lawyer, their opinions actually change. One study found that only 15% of people with a bona fide legal issue have a negative view of attorneys. One key strategy for your online marketing, then, should be to help your website visitors understand how your firm can help them. Get them to stop asking “should I hire an attorney?” and start thinking “I should hire an attorney.” One of the best ways to do this is by regularly creating informative, engaging, educational content for your website.

2.Develop a Plan 

In order to accomplish this, law firms need to create a strategy for managing their own online persona. This needs to involve not only your website and social media profiles, but also any sites that have online reviews. Your online marketing plan also needs to develop realistic target audience personas that take into account a wide and informed view of who your audience really is.

(You can learn more about creating an online marketing plan and audience personas by downloading our free ebook: “How to Develop a Scalable, Sustainable Marketing Plan for Your Law Firm.”)

3.Use Popular Opinion to Your Advantage

Attorneys need to own (or at least acknowledge) popular misconceptions about lawyers. Being able to candidly address the concerns of their audience is crucial, and attorneys can use popular stereotypes as an opportunity to turn potential clients’ opinion around through blog posts, social media, and other avenues.

For example, one of the main misconceptions about attorneys is that they are greedy; defuse this concern by being unambiguous and transparent about your policy regarding fees and other case expenses. Go further and explain why your fee structure is the way it is. If possible, highlight pro bono work you have done – and why you did it. Do this all up front on your website.

4.Rebrand Your Firm If Necessary 

Branding across platforms should break down preconceived notions that potential clients have, not reinforce them. If every page of an attorney’s website is about how amazing they are, it plays into the popular notion that lawyers only care about themselves. If every message that clients receive is about an attorney being able to win their case, it only re-asserts the popular idea that lawyers don’t care about justice and just want to win.

Begin the rebranding process with a review of your existing branded assets: your website, your social media profiles, your business listings, etc. Consider your logo, your tagline(s), any “about us” sections, and other content. Put yourself into the shoes of your well-developed and informed target audience persona, and view these items from their perspective: Are you intrigued to learn more or put off by what you suspected was going to be there? Are your questions being answered in simple, straightforward language or are you getting more confused?

LaFleur: Helping Law Firms Take Control of Their Online Presence

From building brand new websites from the ground up to developing and executing comprehensive content marketing strategies, LaFleur has your law firm covered. Our uniquely talented and qualified marketing professionals can help your law firm overcome common preconceptions against attorneys and highlight your client-centered approach, knowledge, experience, and expertise in a way that resonates with your potential clients.

To learn more about how LaFleur can help you realign your online marketing efforts, call (888) 222-1512 or fill out our convenient online contact form. We look forward to hearing from you!

Related Articles


Cohen, M. (2015, September 30). Why are lawyers so unpopular and stressed? Bloomberg Law. Retrieved from https://bol.bna.com/why-are-lawyers-so-unpopular-and-stressed/

FindLaw.com (2010, January 6). One in five Americans had a legal issue in the last year that could have involved hiring a lawyer, says new FindLaw.com survey. PRNewswire. Retrieved from http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/one-in-five-americans-had-a-legal-issue-in-the-last-year-that-could-have-involved-hiring-a-lawyer-says-new-findlawcom-survey-80778567.html

Guest Pryal, K. R. (2016, March 31). American lawyers have an Atticus Finch complex, and it’s killing the profession. Quartz. Retrieved from http://qz.com/651270/the-american-legal-system-has-an-atticus-finch-complex-and-its-killing-the-profession/

Honesty/ethics in professions. (2015, December 2-6). Gallup. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1654/honesty-ethics-professions.aspx

How today’s consumers really search for an attorney. (2012). LexisNexis | Martindale-Hubbell. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B010fqDaxXj8RDl0clp4dzd5bXM/view?pli=1

Li, V. (2016, April 11). Once someone needs a lawyer, negative views of the profession fall. ABA Journal. Retrieved from http://www.abajournal.com/lawscribbler/article/do_lawyers_really_suck_no_potential_clients_antipathy_can_be_overcome

Matteson, J. (2012, June). Raising the bar: Why lawyers have a bad reputation (and what we can do about it). DeNovo: The Official Publication of the Washington State Bar Association Young Lawyers Devision. Retrieved from http://www.wsba.org/~/media/Files/News_Events/Publications/De%20Novo/de%20novo%200612.ashx%23page=14

Public perceptions of lawyers consumer research findings. (2002, April). American Bar Association. Retrieved from http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/marketresearch/PublicDocuments/public_perception_of_lawyers_2002.authcheckdam.pdf

Rhode, D. L. (2015, May 27). Law is the least diverse profession in the nation. And lawyers aren’t doing enough to change that. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/05/27/law-is-the-least-diverse-profession-in-the-nation-and-lawyers-arent-doing-enough-to-change-that/?utm_term=.03688489a053

Stiegemeyer, C. (2016). While the public perception of lawyers is nothing new, there are steps you can take to change it. The Missouri Bar. Retrieved from http://www.mobar.org/twocolumntemplate.aspx?id=1228

Zaretsky, S. (2013, July 15). Lawyers: The most despised profession in America. Above the Law. Retrieved from http://abovethelaw.com/2013/07/lawyers-the-most-despised-profession-in-america/?rf=1

Zaretsky, S. (2014, September 24). Scientific study concludes no one trusts lawyers. Above the Law. Retrieved from http://abovethelaw.com/2014/09/scientific-study-concludes-no-one-trusts-lawyers/

Chip Lafleur

Chip is an entrepreneur, organizational leader, and marketing expert who combines experience in web development, marketing tactics, strategy, and team leadership with a strong ability to harness talent and hone complex concepts into concrete deliverables.