Lawyer jokes reveal frustration with ‘legalization of life’

Sept. 15, 2005

by Dennis Chaptman

A sweeping look at jokes that lampoon lawyers and the tensions between Americans' respect for law and disdain for attorneys is the focus of "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture," a new book by UW Law School emeritus professor Marc Galanter.

The jokes, which gained momentum beginning in the late 1970s, often portray lawyers as greedy sowers of chaos and corruption and even fantasize about their wholesale demise.

"There's an underlying fantasy of, 'Wouldn't it be nice to get rid of lawyers and all of the regulation that intrudes into your life?'" Galanter says. "There's a recoil to the legalization of life, and lawyers are the lightning rods for that."

An example:

A lawyer called the governor's mansion at 3:30 a.m., insisting that he must speak to the chief executive on a matter of extreme urgency. Eventually, an aide decided to awaken the governor.

"Well, what is it?" demanded the governor.

"Well, governor," said the caller, "Judge Parker just died and I want to take his place."

The response came immediately: "It's all right with me, if it's all right with the undertaker."

Galanter says lawyer jokes seem to be oddly American and he traces some of the animus that people have for attorneys to the expansion of the law in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, changes that afforded new protections for citizens.

"Law was seen as a liberating thing that gave more remedies to individuals ranging from school children to minorities to prisoners who were now able to use the law," Galanter says. "Suddenly, the managers of society were held to account by lawyers."

The prevalence of lawyer jokes is ironic, Galanter says, because Americans tend to hold the law in high regard, but not its practitioners. And surveys have shown that when people are asked about their own treatment by lawyers, they are generally satisfied, he adds.

"There's a feeling that we were supposed to have the rule of law, but instead we have the rule of lawyers," says Galanter, whose book was published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

By the 1980s, Galanter says, there was a rise in more aggressive humor that shifted from mockery to outright hostility. Galanter traced some of their roots to jokes about Communists and Jews that were often decades old, but changed to accommodate lawyers.

One old saw goes like this:

What do you call 6,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start.

Galanter says that after the joke appeared in the early 1980s and was directed at feminists, blacks, Iranians and Jews, the version featuring lawyers gained widespread traction.

"A lot of lawyer jokes were about Jews. A lot of lawyer jokes were about politicians," he says. "They are indicators of these currents of underlying sentiment - outcroppings that show what the social trends were when the jokes were in fashion."

The removal of lawyers from society is a cause for gloating in many of the jokes. One example:

A client phones his lawyer. "I'm terribly sorry," the secretary says, "but Mr. Forsythe died this morning."

The next day the client calls again. Patiently, the secretary reminds him the lawyer is dead. Day after day, the client keeps calling, and each time the secretary tells him the same thing. Finally, she can't stand it anymore. "Why do you keep calling? I've told you a thousand times, Mr. Forsythe is dead!"

"I know," the client says. "I just love hearing it."

Galanter says that the loosening of restrictions on lawyer advertising in the 1970s demystified the legal profession and gave people a glimpse into their fees and the way they operate their practices. That helped feed the portrayal of attorneys as economic predators, Galanter says. One joke goes as follows:

The judge asks: "Why do you want a new trial?"

"On the grounds of newly discovered evidence, your Honor," the lawyer replies.

"What's the nature of it?"

"My client dug up $400 he didn't know he had."

Galanter, as a collector of lawyer jokes, says attorneys are split on their feelings about the jokes.

"There's a minority of lawyers who are offended and unforgiving. A bigger minority really like them, and more are ambivalent," he says. "But some are rather proud. If your group is the butt of jokes, they see it as a badge of status."