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15 Cornell Int'l L.J. 63 (1982)


In 1978 a French television poll queried 982 viewers as to their images of the French lawyer (avocat). Of those polled, less than five percent held a positive view of the avocat. Eighteen percent of the 940 persons who expressed a negative view of the avocat simply conveyed this impression in general terms, but the remainder were more precise. Forty-eight percent of the respondents felt that the avocat was a "money sucker"; fourteen percent saw him as a man without conscience; and another fourteen percent believed that he acted with impunity within his bar. Four percent considered the bar to be an auxiliary of scoundrels; three percent suspected the avocat of connivance with his client's opponent; and those remaining viewed him as utterly incompetent.

One officer of the Paris Bar concluded that this poll is the most blatant proof of the indisputable problems assailing the French legal profession. Reflecting on the image of the lawyer relayed by the public, he acknowledged that the avocat has lost his aura of distinction and has fallen into disgrace. He noted that the French lawyer is resented by the public on whom he imposes excessive economic burdens while, ironically, the financial situation of the average avocat is deteriorating every day. He deplored the facts that the profession is badly organized and inefficient, that the quality of new recruits is poor, and that the lawyer is participating in a judicial machine increasingly subjected to criticism.

When these impressions are contrasted with those expressed not long ago, it becomes clear that a profound malaise is descending upon the French bar. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century the famous lawyer Berryer was so revered by the French people that, even in that era of gallantry, ladies of elite Parisian society would curtsy when he entered the room. Occasionally, artists and writers such as Voltaire or Daumier poked fun at the avocat, but generally the profession was considered "as noble as virtue" and "as indispensable as justice." The lawyer was seen as a good man and as the fierce defender not only of princes and statesmen, but of widows and orphans as well. The recent degradation of the public image of the lawyer is not unique to France. In the United States, for example, the same phenomenon has occurred, especially in the aftermath of the Watergate affair. In France, however, the anxiety is more pervasive and feelings of frustration and impotence are widespread among the members of the bar. The head of the ethics committee of the Paris Bar reported to her peers that the French lawyer is suffering from a sense of inferiority to his colleagues in other parts of the world.

This Article diagnoses the causes of this malaise by focusing primarily on the Paris Bar, both because of its prominent role in the French legal profession and because its problems are a reflection of those assailing the profession as a whole. To meet this objective, the Article examines the rules, customs and mores of the Paris Bar, from its inception to the present day. Many of these rules and customs have remained unchanged since the founding of the Paris Bar, and although valid at one time, today they have the effect of rendering the bar inadequate to meet the new challenges that confront it. It is this conflict between the forces of tradition and the needs of the modem world that is at the root of the problems facing the French legal profession. The French lawyer has become, in effect, a prisoner of his past.


Reprinted with permission of Cornell International Law Journal.


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