Lawyer Jokes Are More Than Just Funny


Author and law professor Marc Galanter spoke at HLS on Tuesday about his new book, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture. Lawyers, he explained, occupy a unique position in society, being simultaneously indispensable and despised. While lawyer jokes have been around for well over a century, they have increased in frequency and viciousness in the United States since the 1980s. This increase, Galanter suggests, echoes society’s feeling that the volume and complexity of law has soured in recent years. Lawyers, then, are portrayed as “swarming pests from whom society requires” a savior.

Galanter addressed the importance of jokes in popular culture. Unlike news, music, or even fairytales, they are not marketed by authorities. They arise on a small scale and are repeated when told from one person to another. Thus, jokes must tap into something in the popular imagination or they would not be repeated and would simply disappear. They are not balanced or reflective, Galanter admits, and they almost inherently diminish their subjects, but they are a good indicator of the shared perceptions of society.

Another key aspect of jokes, Galanter explained, is that they morph in the retelling. Many lawyer jokes, for instance, began life as jokes about racial minorities or even as Eastern European jokes about the Communist Party. Similarly, the type of jokes told about lawyers has changed over the decades. A hundred years ago, lawyer jokes often involved lawyers impeding justice in some way or another; today, “extermination” jokes, comparing lawyers with rats to be extinguished, predominant.

Some jokes, of course, remain constant. Just as lawyers today are often referred to as sharks, sailors a century ago dubbed sharks to be “sealawyers.”

Today, although lawyer jokes are told by almost everyone – lawyers most of all – Galanter noted that negative views of lawyers are most prominent among the traditionally enfranchised – educated, white males. This might, he suggests, reflect the fact that the professional classes, from the late ’80s on, have felt increasingly attacked by lawyers in their business dealings, and simultaneously, are increasingly dependent on their own lawyers for protection against these attacks.

Galanter holds professorships at both the University of Wisconsin law school and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and has been the author of numerous works of legal scholarship focusing on the Indian legal system and litigation and dispute in the United States. His book, Lowering the Bar, is available in hardback from the University of Wisconsin Press. It will also be sold at the Harvard Law School Coop.

A few lawyer jokes every lawyer should be aware of:

Q. Why won’t sharks attack lawyers?A. Professional courtesy.

Q. What is a contingent fee?A. A contingent fee means that if you lose your case, your lawyer doesn’t get anything, and if you win, you don’t get anything.

Q. What do you call a lawyer with an I.Q. of 50?A. Senator.

Q. What would happen if you lock a zombie in a room full of lawyers?A. He would starve to death.

A lawyer dies and goes up to heaven, where they’re throwing a huge party in his honor. “What’s going on?” he asks St. Peter. “I’m just a normal guy – I don’t deserve a special party.” St. Peter looks at him and exclaims, “But you’re the oldest person we’ve ever had up here. 184 years! That’s amazing!” “I’m only 63,” answers the lawyer. St. Peter looks confused and flips through his clipboard. Finally, he looks up.”Oh, our mistake,” he said. “We were looking at your timesheets.”

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