Not Ha-Ha Funny

Gavel coming down on a group of lawyers
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and

Did you hear the one about the law professor who wrote a book about lawyer jokes that wasn't so funny?

Sorry. There is no punch line. It's a true story. Marc Galanter, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, has given us "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture," a book that uses a vast and impressive collection of past and present lawyer jokes to help identify and explain both the causes and results of our national love-hate (these days mostly "hate") relationship with the legal profession. There are hundreds of jokes — but there are also 80 pages of end notes. The book is not exactly bathroom reading, if you get what I mean. And, truly, in the history of the world, there has never been a remotely funny law professor.

Sure, you can flip through the book and find some yuck-yuck jokes worth repeating at your next cocktail party. I mean, who wouldn't like the joke (pp. 60-61) where the late, great Johnnie Cochran gets kicked in the groin by a rancher over contested possession of a duck? But if you read the book closely you are likely to better understand with no small amount of clarity (and unease) why and how lawyers for centuries have been the butt of jokes, both ridiculous and wry. Bottom line? It's easy and popular and a grand historical tradition to cheap-shot a profession that has a reputation, more unfair than not, of being addled with cheap-shot artists.

As Galanter writes, "the swollen body of jokes about lawyers is another form of American exceptionalism, testimony to our vaunting expectations of law and our anxiety that they will be disappointed. The jokes reflect a mismatch that we cannot escape. Suspicious of government, we want impartial law to secure us the fruits of commonwealth. But that same law is a vehicle of individual assertion, at the service of every 'special interest,' including our own. Longing for fraternity, we find ourselves ever more dependent on those who zealously guard our self-interest and our less fraternal impulses, the lawyers."

Galanter has divided the book into joke themes. "Lies and Strategems: the Corruption of Discourse" is the title of Chapter 1. "Lawyer as Economic Predator" is Chapter 2. And so on. The idea in each chapter is to give readers the jokes, and perhaps a little history and context behind them, and then try to explain why the selected jokes (and perhaps their progeny) have survived and thrived as long as they have (for centuries in some cases). The jokes are the tiny pin pricks of humor and sarcasm and fatalism that taken together allow Galanter to stitch together a coherent narrative about the law and its relationship to the people under it.

Why are there so many viable modern-day jokes about lawyers dying or being dead? ("What do you call a good start ...?") Galanter writes dully that it "can best be explained ... as a response to the increasingly legalization of society, manifested both in the ubiquity of lawyers and the pervasiveness of law." More pointedly, however, he concludes that "Americans don't want to be rid of law, but of 'lawyers' law' — of formal, complex, 'artificial' law that only lawyers can understand. The notion that if we were only rid of these lawyers we could return to a better law — simple, natural, direct, and understandable." Dead-lawyer jokes — what Galanter calls "death wish" jokes — are just a way people have come up with to manifest their desire to see a world with fewer lawyers in it.

Why are there so many jokes about lawyers and the Devil? Galanter tackles this in his "Playmates of the Devil" chapter. The answer? Because lawyers have supplemented religious figures as "surrogates for our ambivalence about the increasingly secularized and legalized world." Although "there are lawyers who are religious," Galanter writes, "in the jokes the lawyer stands apart from religion. He is worldly and unimpressed with religion rather than actively opposed to it. But his responsibilities and ambitions put him at cross-purposes with those who see life as preparation for the hereafter."

And then there are the lawyers are rats or lab-rats jokes. Galanter focuses upon this in his "The Lawyer as Morally Deficient" chapter. "Rats offers a convenient vehicle for voicing a number of interrelated points about lawyers in a wonderfully condensed fashion," Galanter writes, somewhat a little too excitedly for my taste. "The association with rats suggests both moral deficiency and betrayal," he writes, and "lawyers who obstruct finally make a positive contribution when reduced to experimental animals. The joke relishes the fantasy of the diminishment of lawyers and their wholesale removal from social life."

I suppose in an odd way Galanter's brave effort is an important milestone in the history of American law. It is astonishing that someone would be willing to take the time it obviously took to compile all these jokes, to investigate their roots, and to interconnect them with larger social themes about the law and lawyers. Even if Galanter's conclusions aren't necessarily earth-shattering — people make jokes about lawyers because people typically don't like lawyers, duh — the result is still a worthwhile compilation if for no other reason than to force a degree of self-awareness upon a profession that in spite of all the evidence still doesn't get how much the rest of the country hates lawyers.

And, for the record, there is no doubt in my mind that Johnnie Cochran would have loved the joke about him — the one about him and the rancher and the duck and the groin. Remind me to tell you that one sometime ...

By Andrew Cohen