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The Verdict's In: Author Says Even Lawyers Laugh at the Jokes

January 09, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Why are lawyers buried 25 feet underground?

Because, deep down, they're really nice guys.

Jokes like that have been around forever, but lawyers are buzzing about a new book that argues they are not just a barometer of the public's feeling about the legal profession -- they also are an escape valve for frustrated attorneys.

"Most lawyers actually like lawyer jokes," said Marc Galanter, a University of Wisconsin law professor who has spent 15 years collecting and analyzing them.

Satiric gripes about ambulance chasers and unethical criminal defenders who prey on their clients' misery are as old as law itself.

What's new, said Galanter, author of "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture," is that since the 1970s the web of regulations that govern the lives of ordinary Americans has become a thicket, often forcing people to hire lawyers just to help them navigate their business and personal affairs. Lawyer jokes help diffuse some of the resentment that builds up.

At the same time, the practice of law has become more cutthroat and all-consuming, with partners and associates pressured to work longer hours and generate more business. Attorney jokes have begun to reflect those realities, Galanter said. Tales that poke fun at pompous senior partners, for example, help junior associates let off steam.

One joke Galanter cites involves an associate, invited to the home of an august senior partner, who is awed by the original paintings by Picasso, Matisse and other famous artists on the walls. The senior partner puts his arm around the associate's shoulder and says: "Yes, if you work long and hard, day in and day out ... seven days a week

"In our circles, nothing is better than a really good lawyer joke," said Robin Sparkman, who edits Corporate Counsel, a national magazine for the top lawyers at corporations. "There are certainly a lot of sensitive issues within the profession, and anything that makes fun of them ... gets a good laugh."

An article on Galanter's book for the magazine's January issue generated an outpouring of positive e-mails, Sparkman said.

Several local lawyers said they regularly poked fun at their own profession.

Daniel Grunfeld, president of Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, a nonprofit law office that is the nation's largest provider of pro bono legal services, said he starts nearly every speech he gives to young lawyers with a joke.

"The perception of lawyers is generally of being in it for the bottom line and not caring about justice," he said. Since the jokes play up those stereotypes, he said, they send a message both about the dangers of becoming too self-centered and "the power of lawyers to do good."

Some lawyers are touchier than others about being the butt of jokes.

In July 1993, then-California State Bar President Harvey Saferstein called for a "cease-fire" on lawyer bashing, contending that the jokes may have contributed to a deadly shooting at a San Francisco law office by a disgruntled client.

At the time, Saferstein's plea was greeted with more jokes -- about lawyers with no sense of humor. In hindsight, the Santa Monica lawyer said recently, "I still feel lawyers receive unfair criticism, but I've become more tolerant of the jokes."

Patric M. Verrone has been on both sides of lawyer humor. Currently president of the Writers Guild of America, West, Verrone began his career practicing law in Florida and switched to comedy, penning jokes for Johnny Carson, "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."

Carson was more than willing to tell lawyer jokes, Verrone said, perhaps because "his idea of a lawyer was a divorce lawyer."

Verrone agreed that "lawyers tell these jokes to each other" but said that "lawyers who are actually funny find themselves wanting to do something else."

Tim O'Donnell, a television sitcom writer and producer, admitted that he too had written his share of lawyer jokes but said the idea behind Galanter's book was itself funny: "A book about lawyer jokes by a lawyer sounds like a joke itself."



Have you heard this one?

Among the more than 200 lawyer jokes cited in Marc Galanter's book "Lowering the Bar":

* How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? How many can you afford?

* Did you hear that Saddam Hussein took 100 lawyers hostage and said that if his demands weren't met he'd start releasing them one by one?

* Why does California have the most lawyers and New Jersey the most toxic waste dumps? New Jersey had first choice.

* There was a small town with just one lawyer and he was starving for lack of business. Then another lawyer moved to town and they both prospered.

* What's the difference between a dead snake lying in the road and a dead lawyer lying in the road? There are skid marks in front of the snake.

* The litigant rushes indignantly into his lawyer's office, shouting that he wants "Justice!" The lawyer calms him down and then says: "Tell me, exactly how much justice can you afford?"

Source: "Lowering the Bar"

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