The subject today is lawyers.

Call them attorneys, call them solicitors, or call them barristers (if you're British) most of us have had contact them and used their services at one point in our lives.

Several years ago, I was having lunch with a fellow named Chris Foust, an attorney who practiced throughout Northumberland County where I was working at the time. Chris was the solicitor for quite a number of the municipalities I was covering for the local newspaper at the time, and as result got to know each other pretty well.

Anyway, during the meal I finally got up the nerve to ask Chris a question about lawyers I'd wondered about over the years. By then I knew Chris well enough that I figured he wouldn't take offense if I broached a subject which I'm certain we've all asked ourselves occasionally.

In my experience working with lawyers, I've found most of them to be decent hard-working people who - like a majority of the rest of society - are eager to see that the innocent are protected while the guilty are punished for the crimes they commit. Of course lawyers - particularly those who handle criminal cases - are in a unique position in which they must use whatever means permitted by the legal system to get their clients off, even when they know that they're clients are guilty of the crimes they've been accused of committing.

I refer to this as the "Perry Mason syndrome" after fiction's greatest attorney. If you recall, first in numerous books written by author Erle Stanley Gardner, and later in the long-running television series, Perry Mason only defended clients - usually accused of murder - who were always innocent. Always. You'd probably get a smile if you discuss this fact with a practicing attorney, but real-life is one thing, and the laws of drama are another. In order for the viewer to root for Mason, his client had to be innocent of the crime in question. As unlikely as it might be in real life, it was a formula that worked incredibly well in the series enjoyed by viewers over the years.

So, based on this information, I asked Chris how he managed to come to terms with such things whenever he took a criminal case. I'm afraid I wasn't too successful in initially asking the question, because he smiled and said - trying to help me voice my thoughts - "How do I live with myself?"

I laughed and I assured him that's not precisely how I meant it, although it is an effective, if blunt, way of putting it. Then I explained I knew that he - like most other folks - wouldn't want to see a criminal get off scot-free; that he would want to see said person punished and/or incarcerated to keep him or her away from those who obey the law. I also told him I realized as an attorney he has an obligation to his clients to have the charges against them dismissed (or reduced), or have his clients declared not guilty following a trial. Even if he knew his client was guilty. Then I finished by asking Chris how does he perform the balancing act of fulfilling his obligation to give his clients the best legal representation he possibly could, while at the same time having to deal with the fact if he succeeded, he would be helping a guilty person avoid punishment.

Chris explained to me that way he operates is if everything within the legal system is in place against his client; if everything is as it should be, there's was no way he could win his case and get his client off. If he wins a case, Chris explained, then that means in some way the legal system had failed to prove its case against his client, and thus in the process, he had protected his client's legal rights; one of his major responsibilities as a defense attorney.

I chewed on this a while, but still wasn't able to quite get a handle on it. Then by chance I later happened to read an article in which another defense attorney was asked the same question I had posed to Chris. This fellow gave the same answer in a way that was a little bit clearer. He said that by his actions, he prevents the legal system itself from becoming corrupt.

Well, the heavens of knowledge opened up for me at that point. And it was something that not only did I approve of, I could also relate to it as well, because my job requires me to do the same thing, abet employing different techniques. Lawyers, journalists, and just about ever other decent member of society want to make certain that the system continues to serve the people as a whole, without the taint of corruption getting into it. Because once that happens, the damage a corrupted legal system (or any other governmental system for that matter) can inflict on the people is infinitely worse than those inflicted by corrupted individuals.

Or, to use an old saying, which remains as relevant as ever within our legal system: "It is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to punish one innocent man for a crime he did not commit."

C.J. Marshall is a columnist and writer for The Daily Review. His email address is cjmarshall@thedailyreview.com.