Inside Perspective: A disturbing poll about salesmen

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also immediate past president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

“Perception is reality”

I was greatly disturbed by the results of a poll I recently read suggesting that lawyers are perceived as only slightly more honest and ethical than car salesman ( http://www.insidecounsel.com/2011/12/12/37-of-people-say-lawyers-have-very-low-ethical-sta?ref=hp?utm_source=ic&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=icscoopenews). I mean come on, why does everyone always pick on car salesmen – they have to make a living just like everyone else.  What is it about car salesmen, stockbrokers and telemarketers (the other professions deemed lower than lawyers on the ethical scale) that creates such distrust?

Who would sell us cars if the car salesman was not there to approach you as you entered the dealership?  How would you handle your 401k without the stock broker or hear about all the new fantastic products and aluminum siding deals if there weren’t telemarketers to fill you in?  The “good” news is that another time-honored profession – congressman, ranked lower than the car people.

Let’s put this into context.  More Americans find polygamy morally acceptable (11 percent) than approve of Congress (9 percent), and a whopping 30 percent of Americans expressed approval of pornography.  Even the U.S  “going communist” ranks higher than Congress at 11 percent (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/16/congress-approval-rating-porn-polygamy_n_1098497.html).  Lawyering is the dominant profession of those serving in Congress (http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RS22007.pdf), so if more congressmen were lawyers, their polling numbers would be higher, logically speaking, since lawyers poll higher than Congress as a whole.

What does all of this mean for these under-respected occupations?  I suggest that these groups follow some of the examples set by higher polling professions, such as lawyers.  Most of the people reading this column are lawyers and I am willing to bet that each and every one of you actively participates in at least one philanthropic organization, or provides funds in lieu of active participation.  The organization with which I am associated – the Association of Corporate Counsel – offers internships to diverse students, conducts Street Law programs for underserved high schools in Chicago and Elgin and participates in countless pro bono opportunities.  Many, many lawyers take advantage of the opportunities we give them to reach out and help someone who might need a hand.

Lawyers operate under strict rules of professional responsibility.  Wouldn’t it be great to see the same thing among car salesmen?  How much easier would it be to trust the salesperson when you knew that she is required by law and risks losing her job if she is not honest with you about the deal (“That’s a tough one, we won’t make any money at that low price, I’ll check with my manager….”).

People actually call lawyers when they need help.  I certainly don’t call people asking them for work, I am the one receiving the phone calls.  And when I get that call, I respond as timely as I can.  Not because I’ll lose the sale or the trade will go stale, but because I have an internal moral compass (and external ethics rules) that require me to respond timely and assist the client zealously to the best of my abilities – a responsibility I do not take lightly.

It is all a matter of perception, isn’t it?  I have worked hard to better the perception of lawyers in the community – it is a cause very close to my heart.  Lawyers continue to poll among the lowest of the professions in terms of trustworthiness.  Who are the people being asked these questions and who are their lawyers?  Despite the disappointing results, I urge each and every one of you to continue to fight the good fight, stick to the high moral ground, act professionally and responsibly and continue to give back to your communities.  We all look forward to the day when we out-poll pornography!

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