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Lowering the bar

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Don't laugh at Dutch lawyers
E. S. Turner
21 September 2005

Lawyer jokes and legal culture
Marc Galanter

430pp. | University of Wisconsin Press. $45; distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £32.95. | 0 299 21350 1

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A favourite American riddle runs: “What do you call six hundred lawyers at the bottom of the sea?”. The answer is “A good start”. The riddle itself makes a good start to an inquest on lawyer-bashing, but it is not “the single most prevalent of all current lawyer jokes” in America. That is the one which says that research laboratories are using lawyers instead of rats, the three main reasons being that lawyers are more plentiful, that lab assistants don’t get attached to them, and that there are some things a rat will not do. Other ingeniously wounding reasons have been added. According to Marc Galanter, ten variations appeared in Lame Duck’s 1998 Lawyer Joke-a-Day Calendar; and for the benefit of doubters, or fellow researchers, with access to old unused tear-off calendars, he lists the actual dates on which these jettisonable squibs appeared.

Lowering the Bar, which contains 150 pages of equally scrupulous joke annotations and sourcings, is almost wholly about American lawyers, among whom Galanter enjoys professorial rank. He is concerned that “the great surge of lawyer joking” which began in the 1980s has increasingly displayed “mean-
spirited scorn and aggression”, as compared with the “gentle mockery” of earlier times. In 1988, the California bar ran a workshop, at its annual meeting, on “Why Are They Laughing?”. Radio talk shows vied with each other in lawyer insults; publishers rushed out titles like First, Kill All the Lawyers, The Lawyers from Hell Joke Book and Truly Tasteless Lawyer Jokes; and the internet threw itself open to freelance scurrilities. In Galanter’s words, the American public had chosen lawyers as a screen on which to project their animosities. But why? That is the major question to which, fortified by the Anonymous Fund for the Humanities of Wisconsin-Madison University, he has devoted years of inquiry.

It was no surprise that the expansion of prejudice coincided with the huge increases in lawyer numbers over recent decades. Galanter accuses the British media, including the BBC, of parroting a Daniel Quayle misestimate suggesting that America has three-quarters of the world’s lawyers, whereas the correct figure is “probably somewhere in the range of one quarter”; which surely still smacks of exorbitancy. The reason for the rise in numbers Galanter attributes to “the increasing legalization of society” expressed in

"a decentralized legal regime in which any activity is subject to multiple bodies of regulation . . . where decision makers produce not definitive and immutable rulings but contingent temporary resolutions that are open to further challenge; where outcomes are subject to contestation in multiple forums by an expanding legion of organised and persistent players . . . ."
Was there ever a better specification for a lawyers’ paradise? Americans tolerate this system, it appears, because they “rely more on law (and correspondingly less on government) as a vehicle of justice”. But to what other end can the system lead than the question, staple of many jokes, “How much justice can you afford?”.

Not all anti-lawyer jokes are fairly earned. Galanter is at pains to show that many of them are recyclings of jests originally told at the expense of politicians, travelling salesmen, Jews, Communists and ethnic minorities. Lawyers are in no way a protected species and cannot shelter behind the rules of political

correctness. Seen as “aggressive” and “domineering”, they attract the insults once lavished on doctors and priests. Being singled out as a joke target, Galanter argues, is a tribute to high status and has the ultimate affect of boosting rather than lowering reputation. “We have so much status we can endure a firestorm of jokes”, he claims. Many lawyers play along with their bad image; an illustration shows a T-shirt with a shark’s head and the inscription “Trust Me, I’m a Lawyer”, said to be a best-seller at legal conventions. However, the practice of the late flamboyant Melvin Belli in hoisting the Jolly Roger whenever he won a case failed to amuse all his colleagues.

A certain sharpening in the jokes about lawyers came about when the profession

introduced hourly billing, from the 1960s onwards. Many of us will remember a billing joke, more than a century old, about the lawyer who demanded a fee “For waking up in the night and thinking about your case, $5”, later capped by the tale of a rival who charged “For crossing the street to talk to you, then discovering it wasn’t you at all, $125”. Galanter says that “Billing for thinking about the client while showering or engaging in other grooming activities is encouraged by many firms”. The “best-known story about billing”, by his reckoning, tells of a lawyer being congratulated by St Peter at the Pearly Gates for having reached the wonderful age of 165. When the embarrassed
lawyer says he died at seventy-eight, St Peter re-examines the scroll and say, “Ah, I see where we made our mistake . . . we just added up your time sheets”. Cue in a touching tale of innocence about a little girl who was given a lift in a pony cart by a Welsh solicitor to whom she refused to speak, explaining afterwards to her mother that “Mr Lloyd George, the lawyer, charges you whenever you talk with him and I hadn’t any money”.

Galanter’s plan in Lowering the Bar is to group various types of jokes under generic headings like “The Lawyer as Economic Predator”, “Lawyers as Fomentors of Strife”, “The Lawyer as Morally Deficient” and “Death Wish Jokes”, accompanying the individual jokes with well-informed or amused ruminations, extenuations, or head-shakings. Some of the narrative jokes are told at excessive length and many of the glosses are redundant. It is a bold man who can assert that such-and-such a joke “has not been published in the United States since 1940”, but no one can do other than marvel at the staggering assiduity with which the author has explored this often grubby territory (Totally Gross Jokes, Awesomely Gross Jokes, Outrageously Offensive Jokes, The World’s Dirtiest Dirty Jokes, et al, ad inf). Occasionally he surfaces with a reminder that anti-lawyer jokes pre-dated by some centuries the birth of the US, as in “the spate of joke books” which accompanied the Italian Renaissance. In a work of philosophical facetiae, published c1475, he finds a tale about two rustics who rescue a man from drowning in mud, but throw him back on finding that he is a lawyer. If there had been lawyer jests in Chapter 11 of St Luke’s Gospel, along with those powerful denunciations of lawyers, rest assured Galanter would have found them. Inevitably he lays under tribute the much-quoted Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wits’ Vade Mecum, dating from mid-eighteenth century. Like many American academic authors, Galanter has been privileged to try out his

material on student, faculty and professional groups, twenty of which he identifies in his acknowledgements.

If this book is right, there are no lawyer jokes in Holland. “In civil law countries”, the author explains, “with their smaller number of lawyers and larger contingents of judges, lawyers do not seem to play an important part in the public imagination.” In the Netherlands they lack social influence. A Dutch sociologist is quoted as saying, “No need for jokes. The Dutch couldn’t care less”. Which brings us, belatedly, to Britain. Why is there not a firestorm of anti-lawyer jokes here? According to Galanter, whose inquiries brought him several times to these shores, the expansion of lawyer numbers in the UK has been even more dramatic than in the US (this will surprise many), yet British lawyer jokes, while attributing “lying, greed and trickiness” to lawyers, do not portray them as a “pestilential affliction”, worthy of mass drowning. British lawyers are seen as “funny in the way that golfers and salesmen are funny”. Or Scotsmen, perhaps. Three generations ago, Britain was awash with jokes about canny Aberdonians, the mainstay of the tear-off calendar industry and joke-book publishers. Many of those hoary libels could have been reworked as anti-lawyer jokes, along with other outworn jest categories. This seems not to be happening.

However, it would be rash to suppose that this benign neglect will long continue. The newspapers are forever reporting cases in which justice and common sense appear to have parted company, the courts are seen as arenas for pursuing spurious grievances, respectable causes collapse under the weight of legal costs, and corporate lawyers enlarge loopholes to admit tax-dodgers’ juggernauts. Television and Yellow Pages are shrill with advertisements by solicitors asking, “Have you been injured? Was someone else to blame?”, and listing not only “slip, trip and fall” but medical misdiagnosis as tickets for fortune. None of this seems likely to improve the lawyer image, and not all the blame is to be laid on the litigious excesses of America; without bloody-minded or greedy clients, lawyers would be out of business. If a fearless British investigator, backed by an inexhaustible Anonymous Fund for the Humanities, were to explore in depth the joke-worthiness of the British legal scene, might he not, as Marc Galanter does from time to time, come up with some serious misgivings about where we are heading?

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