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Chief of Bar Assn. Asks End to Lawyer-Bashing : Law: In wake of San Francisco slayings, state president says jokes can contribute to violence. He would classify some acts against attorneys as hate crimes.

July 06, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of last week's mass shooting in a San Francisco law office by a businessman who blamed his losses on attorneys, the California Bar Assn.'s president on Monday called for a "cease-fire" on lawyer-bashing, contending that it contributes to increasing physical violence.

"There's a point at which jokes and humor are acceptable and a point at which they become nothing more than hate speech," state Bar President Harvey Saferstein said at a news conference in Century City.

Saferstein acknowledged that lawyers may have brought on some of the prejudice in the past decade through promotional techniques that downplay the stress and tediousness of litigation and emphasize the potential rewards a client can enjoy.

But he blasted advertisers whose television commercials poke fun at lawyers, including a recent athletic shoe ad in which a "perfect planet" is described as one without lawyers and a beer commercial in which attorneys in business suits are lassoed by cowboys at a rodeo.

Comparing jokes against attorneys to hate speech against African-Americans and women, Saferstein said he favors classifying such comments as hate crimes.

Just as those who commit criminal acts can face additional time in jail if they act on the basis of racial prejudice, individuals who exhibit hatred of attorneys and then commit criminal acts against them should face the same additional penalties, Saferstein said.

Crimes against attorneys should rate special penalties--similar to crimes against police, judges and political officeholders--because lawyers are representatives of the court and their work is essential to the country's justice system, Saferstein said.

Asked if the bar association would propose legislation to put lawyers in that special category, Saferstein said such a decision would be up to Gov. Pete Wilson.

The gunman in the San Francisco shooting, Gian Luigi Ferri, 55, was a former client of the law firm of Pettit & Martin. Apparently disgruntled over investment advice provided by the firm a decade ago, Ferri rampaged through the firm's downtown office on Thursday, killing eight people and wounding six before putting a gun to his chin and killing himself.

After the shooting, investigators found on Ferri's body a rambling, four-page declaration in which he accused the law firm of racial and ethnic prejudice, claimed that the firm had "raped" him and listed an assortment of "criminals, rapists and racketeers" that included attorneys' names.

Psychologists contacted after the shooting said Ferri appeared to have been suffering from paranoia and a victim complex.

(The San Francisco Examiner reported that Ferri apparently intended to survive his deadly skyscraper attack and may have planned to tell his troubles to television talk shows. He had a list of the names and studio addresses of more than a dozen shows--ranging from "Oprah" to "Washington Week in Review"--in a briefcase with him when he died, the newspaper said in Sunday's editions.)

Attorneys have been the butt of humor for centuries. William Shakespeare threw a classic dart at them in his play, "Henry VI," when the leader of a rebellion in Kent, Jack Cade, proposed a perfect society that included clothes and food for all.

"The first thing we do," interrupted one of Cade's followers, "let's kill all the lawyers," a proposal to which Cade speedily agreed.

Lawyer-bashing continues today with recurring anti-attorney jokes and even books, such as "101 Things to Do With a Dead Attorney."

In his news conference, Saferstein, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in business and anti-trust litigation, admitted that no evidence exists of a connection between lawyer jokes and violent acts against attorneys. But the jokes "could have an effect on a fringe case," he said.

He called on "all Americans to stop the lawyer-bashing that has been going on, particularly by national, commercial sponsors, that sometimes can ignite violence and aggression toward lawyers."

Saferstein referred to the San Francisco shooting as another in a string of violent crimes against lawyers that have occurred recently. Last year, attorney Michael Friedman was shot to death inside the Los Angeles County Law Library and two Texas attorneys were slain inside a Tarrant County courthouse.

Criminal attorneys have been physically assaulted by clients seeking to delay their criminal trials and family law attorneys are increasingly receiving threats from their clients going through bitter divorce proceedings, Saferstein said.

Accompanied by psychologist Dorothy Tucker, Saferstein said the state Bar plans a four-pronged response to the shooting. The association will help provide psychological counseling for Pettit & Martin lawyers traumatized by the shooting and will help raise funds for scholarships in memory of the victims.

In addition, the state Bar's education committee and its standing committee on continuing education will develop programs to help educate lawyers about dealing with disgruntled clients, he said.

Saferstein said the bar association will start a campaign to end lawyer-bashing.

He spent much of his time complaining about "an uptick in the volume and aggressiveness" of anti-lawyer sentiment in advertisements, saying that such humor is seen as commonplace and acceptable, even though it is comparable to racist humor--stereotypically and negatively branding a class of people.

In an interview, Saferstein said lawyers may have been their own worst enemies by adopting current marketing practices.

"Lawyers were taught in the '80s, by virtue of the psychology of the '80s, to be salesmen. They were taught marketing skills," he said.

"The client thinks the lawyer can work miracles, but the court system moves slowly and there are enormous frustrations. . . . Maybe we do need to lower expectations of what a lawyer can do."

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