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:: By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

:: Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin Press

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Peer Review ::

Open Mike

Q: What do you need when you have three lawyers up to their necks in cement? A: More cement.

photo:  open mike
Law professor and joke scholar Marc Galanter researches lawyer jabs.

Death wishes, says legal scholar Marc Galanter, AB’50, AM’54, JD’56, may be the latest lawyer-bashing trend, but attorneys have been ridiculed since the ancient Greeks. In America, the 1960s introduction of billable hours and the “increasing legalization of society” have only fueled the fire, writes Galanter in his book Lowering the Bar: Jokes & Legal Culture (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005)

Why we hate lawyers: On the one hand, we like the lawyer being totally on the side of the client. On the other hand, we expect the lawyer to be an emissary of justice too. We like him to be the agent of our interests and at the same time a principal guardian of the common interest. There’s a real tension there.

Why we love lawyers: Not all lawyer jokes necessarily condemn lawyers. There’s a vein in many of appreciation of the lawyer’s eloquence, persuasiveness, and resourcefulness.

Case in point: There’s a 19th-century one about a lawyer who defends a client accused of stealing a horse, and there’s all kinds of evidence against the client. The lawyer makes an eloquent address to the jury, who then acquits the client. As they are leaving the courtroom, the lawyer puts his arm around the client and says, “So, nothing bad can happen now, Jim. But just between you and me, you did steal that horse, didn’t you?” And the client says, “You know, all along I thought I did, but when I heard your talk up there to the jury, now I’m not so sure.”

American anti-lawyerism: Lawyers in the U.S. are more numerous, more visible, more important, and more powerful in people’s minds than their counterparts in England, Canada, or other places. ... The notion lawyers can somehow affect your life is a very American notion. Nobody in England thinks lawyers are going to have any effect whatsoever on their lives.

His favorite lawyer jab: A very wealthy man, old and very ill, summons to his bedside his three closest advisers: his doctor, his priest, and his lawyer. “I know,” he says, “they say ‘you can’t take it with you.’ But who knows? I’d like to have something, just in case. So I am giving each of you an envelope containing $100,000, and I would be grateful if at my funeral you would put the envelope in my coffin.” They agree to carry out his wish.

After a few weeks, the old man passes away. At his funeral, each of the three advisers slips something into the coffin. After the burial, as the three are walking away together, the doctor turns to the other two and says, “Friends, I have a confession to make. At the hospital our CAT scan machine broke down and we haven’t been able to get a new one. So I took $20,000 of our friend’s money for a new CAT scanner and put the rest in the coffin as he asked.”

The priest says, “I, too, have a confession to make. Our church is overwhelmed by the problem of the homeless. So I took $50,000 from the envelope for our homeless fund and put the rest in the coffin as our friend requested.”

Fixing the other two in his gaze, the lawyer says, “I am astonished and deeply disappointed that you would treat so casually our solemn understanding with our friend. I want you to know that I placed in his coffin my personal check for the full $100,000.”