September 19, 2005

Oddly American: lawyer jokes.

Marc Galanter (my colleague) has a new book analyzing the phenomenon of lawyer jokes:
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."...

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."

I'm expecting the comments section on this post to fill up with lawyer jokes, but I'm expecially interested in the cultural/political analysis Galanter provides. What do you think of that?

Bonus nostalgia link to an old post: I object to that bottom-of-the-sea joke.

IN THE COMMENTS: Several commenters trace lawyer jokes to the problems of what is perceived as a litigation explosion in this country, and I point out that Galanter has written extensively debunking this as a myth. You can get his articles on the subject here.


Hamsun56 said...

I can think of two factors for the rise of lawyer jokes. The first is a reaction to living in what is percieved by many to be an overly litigious society.

The second is that many people like telling derogatory jokes and lawyers are a "safe" target since they are not a disadvantaged group or minority. I remember as a kid when Polish and Italian jokes were commonly told. It is no longer PC to tell them, so we tell lawyer jokes and blond jokes instead.

Jonathan said...

If your characterization of his argument is accurate, he is begging the question.

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.

So lawyer jokes are rooted in mere bigotry and resentment against people who help to bring "new protections to society."

An alternative explanation is that a lot of people in our society either have been victimized by unjustified lawsuits or other abusive legal process, know of individuals and companies who have been so victimized, or otherwise think that inappropriate litigation imposes huge costs on our society.

Ann Althouse said...

Andrew, Jonathan: You may be interested to know that Marc Galanter has written, very prominently, that the litigation explosion is a myth.

Too Many Jims said...

Perhaps a myth, but a widely believed myth and thus the perception may still exist that the "overly litigious society" imposes costs on the society as a whole.

Yevgeny Vilensky said...

Ann, do you have a link to the paper by Galanter that the litigation explosion is a myth? It just boggles my mind that it is a myth. I'm not a lawyer, so I don't have access to Westlaw or anything like that. Thanks.

tommy said...

I wonder how much if it is in response to some of those over the top TV commercials some lawyers run. If nothing else they certainly provide a good starting point for a joke casting lawyers in a less than favorable light.

I don't remember when that advertising became so prevalent either.

John Thacker said...

I would be interested to see the discussion that the "litigation explosion" is a myth. In any case, it does not actually require an explosion of litigation in order for fear of litigation to inflict costs on society. All it takes are a couple of high-profile cases with large judgements in order for many, many more organizations to adopt restrictive rules in order to prevent the risk of litigation and heavy loss.

I haven't experienced too much in the way of actual overeager litigation. OTOH, I have experienced lots of forms and bureaucracy that is clearly intended to prevent such litigation, including places where it makes everyone worse off.

As to why the jokes are told-- the jokes are the same that are told about any group believed to possess a large deal of power, and is magnified when the group, like lawyers, is not elected to their positions.

Jeffrey Boulier said...

What, no lawyer jokes yet?

"A lawyer killed a viper
Down by the barnyard stable
And the Devil smiled, for it put him in mind
Of what happened twixt Cain and Abel."

Abraham said...

I think it's a fair generalization that Americans, as a people, tend to distrust and dislike authority. Especially arrogant and overbearing authority. In our current society, lawyers are seen as that authority (and are usually blamed for unpopular judicial decisions), and, for whatever reasons, lawyers are also often arrogant and overbearing. Therefore, it is no surprise to me that America hates lawyers.

Larry said...

You don't like to have to explain jokes, but -- most lawyer jokes depend upon a widespread impression that the profession is an inherently irritating one, the irritation having to do with a sense of frequently unjustified and petty abuse of power (an impression that goes back at least to Shakespeare). They would work just about as well if you substituted, e.g., journalists, politicians, Hollwood celebrities, that sort of thing. And they'd work against any group that was so perceived by their audience, but not without such a perception (at least in some degree). Which means, as Johnathan said, that Galanter is begging the question in the classic sense, and in a patently self-serving manner.

Did you know, by the way, that 99% of lawyers give the rest a bad name?

Wade_Garrett said...

A couple of years ago, the New Yorker magazine published a little collection of all of its best lawyer cartoons. I bought it for my father, who loved it, and to this day it is still sitting on his desk in his law office. Its a good "stocking stuffer" for the lawyers on your shopping list.

I think its interesting; when I was in high school my guidance counselor showed me a poll, done by (I believe) Forbes magazine of the most and least respected occupations in America. The most respected was "judge," but then lawyer was one of the least respected. Oddly, "prosecutor" was seperate from lawyer, and prosecutors did well in this poll. The public has a complex attitude towards lawyers -- they are ripe for ridicule, but when people get in trouble, who else are they going to hire? I know some personal injury lawyers who still get Christmas cards every year from people they represented in the 70's or early 80's. Did these people have a positive view of plaintiff's lawyers prior to their causes of action? Maybe, maybe not.

Becker said...

First, Larry, that isn't a joke.

Second, of more concern to me than the "litigation explosion" is the fact that we have more students in law schools than in engineering schools.

Steve Donohue said...

I had never heard the joke told with "lawyers" as the drownees, I'd always heard the joke as either violists or conductors.

I guess it's all in the groups we associate ourselves with.

The Mojician said...

I think that the proliferation of lawyer jokes has as much to do with the fees that lawyers charge as anything else. Many individuals who have found it necessary to engage lawyers for various personal reasons have discovered that they are paying the lawyers far more than they believe the lawyers have justly earned.

Steven said...

Ever watch daytime or late-night television?

Bates v. State Bar of Arizona is why "The jokes . . . gained momentum beginning in the late 1970s" and "often portray lawyers as greedy sowers of chaos and corruption[.]"

For example, we've got a local firm here in El Paso that advertises itself as "The Strong Arm", and talks about all the money they'll get for you. What kind of impression on the general public could that make, other than that the lawyers are greedy and underhanded?

Simon said...

I read a mock commencement address a couple of months ago - it was attatched to the end of an op/ed called "law school in twenty minutes" or something of that nature - that concluded "once again, congratulations, and welcome to one of the most hated professions in the history of the world".

Simon Kenton said...

Lawyers: Ten can thrive where one would starve.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Lawyers are now being used in research instead of lab rats.
When researchers were asked why, they gave three reasons:
1. There's a plentiful supply.
2. The lab assistants don't get attached to them.
3. There are some things rats won't do.

Anna said...

I worked in a corporate law firm for a dozen years and they told more lawyer jokes than I'd ever heard before and they also referred to themselves as "barracudas" or "sharks."

My friend worked in a small personal law office and they were self-proclaimed ambulance chasers.

Larry said...

Becker: First, Larry, that isn't a joke.

(Wince.) Yeah, I left out a word -- it's: "99% of lawyers give all the rest a bad name."

Little things like that are why I never made it in stand-up.

Simon said...

1. There's a plentiful supply.

This is one of the two main reasons why I intend to remain an interested layman, rather than spending the absurd amount of money that it costs to get through law school. If you're considering starting a business, one of the things you usually consider is, "is there already a glut in the market for this product?" - if the answer is "yes", you have to ask yourself "will the product [if you're a lawyer, that's you] bring something to the market that will distinguish it from the competition?". I'm not sure how anyone can reasonably answer in the affirmative to question A, but I'm sure interested to know how people answer question B.

Simon said...

they also referred to themselves as "barracudas" or "sharks."

I want to get someone to do me an illustration of a fountain pen with a snarling shark's mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. I don't know quite how that would work out, or exactly how it would look, but it would seem the sort of metaphor to put on a t-shirt proclaiming to the world that one stands with Scalia. ;)

me said...

Having been an attorney for about 15 years, I can reasonably say that all lawyer jokes are true.

However, the numerous slams against lawyers are usually misdirected. There problems with the legal system closely mirror the problems with society as a whole.

When compared to other professions, and as I an attorney I have been in close contact with many, attorneys are probably a little more honest as a whole, than most other professions as a whole.

The litigation explosion is not a myth. Fifty years from now I think many of our legal related tasks will be outsourced like everything else, to reduce transactional costs.

Krizz said...

Here in Sweden you hear lawyer jokes as well, but not to the extent common in the US.

My favourite, which is an old one, goes like this: "Virtue in the middle, the Devil said, and sat down between two lawyers."

gs said...

In a discussion of the "new protections for citizens" arising from the 50s-70s expansion of the law, the old caveat about trading liberty for security should be mentioned. In modern times there was Warren Burger's 'plague of locusts' speech about lawyers. It is a counterpart, imho, to Eisenhower's military-industrial complex speech. Surprisingly, tort-reform Republicans don't spotlight the speech; maybe Roe v. Wade makes Burger eevilll.

Maybe the regulation industry, aka legal profession, needs a PR slogan. America's Lawyers: No Laughing Matter. I'd go along with that.

I agree that it is society as a whole which has allowed lawyers to pullulate. Individual lawyers shouldn't be blamed for meeting a demand and making a good living thereby. Why, that would be as ridiculous as scapegoating McDonald's for national obesity...

Jonathan said...

John Thacker is right. The social costs of excessive litigation are more a function of marginal than average costs. All it takes is a few large, capriciously determined judgments to drive up everyone's risk and hence cost. The high cost is a function of the high volatility of judgments, i.e., the existence of big outliers. The volatility of judgments appears to be higher than it used to be, whatever the level of the average judgment is. It's analogous to the process by which prices of financial options rise with the price volatility of the underlying instrument, even if the average transaction price of the underlying instrument doesn't change.

I am not surprised that Galanter thinks there is no litigation explosion. I assume that he is basing his argument on average rather than marginal costs. My lawyer friends with whom I have argued this topic also used the flawed logic of average costs.

There is nothing inherently wrong with litigation as a means of resolving disputes. The question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Litigation advocates tend to ignore the costs. But it's obvious to many of the rest of us that the costs are excessive. Perhaps, when litigation drives entire industries (small aircraft, vaccines) into distress, spurs physicians in some states to drop pricey malpractice coverage, and is used routinely as a business and political tool to extort settlements by imposing arbitrary costs, there is a problem.

Lawyers are always rationalizing litigiousness by citing hapless individuals who get victimized by big business or big government and can't get relief in any other way. But these arguments ignore the very heavy costs imposed on individuals in such an environment by frivolous or abusive litigation, as well as the heavy social costs imposed when businesses adopt high-cost, defensive practices and avoid making valuable products that have high potential for engendering litigation.

Jack Roy said...


I don't know if Galanter's article is available online, but there is a wrap-up of the research here that makes several citations to Galanter's work. While several of the journals do make available their most recent articles for free on their websites, I suspect Galanter's is not yet there. But if you live near a law library, the citations are provided in the link above, and it shouldn't be too hard to get a hard copy.

Charles said...

Rope... lawyer.... some assembly required. (Works for politicians too).

How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb? No one knows, the light bulb's appeal is still pending.

Elect Kerry and crippled people will walk, so says the lawyer that channels dead babies from beyond the grave for juries...

Stop the jokes by stop the junk science and refusal of common sense in cases and decisions.

SteveR said...

I think Jonathan comments are right. Just because lawyers, as a whole, reflect society as a whole, does not entirely excuse what happens. If they are smarter, better educated and expert, they have a tremendous ability to control how their profession "acts" and is perceived. When they don't self regulate, its bad for them but what's worse is its bad for us.

amba said...

Here's a link to a page of old saws -- "things people (supposedly) really said in court." Yeah, right, but still, I was laughing helplessly at some of them, and it feels good to laugh helplessly. Some of the absurd remarks are made by people on the stand, but some of the lawyers' questions are pretty funny too, e.g.:

"Q: How far apart were the vehicles at the time of the collision?"

Q: So the date of conception (of the baby) was August 8th?
A: Yes.
Q: And what were you doing at that time?

Wave Maker said...

LOL, Amba --- I've spent enough time in courtrooms to know that most of those "actual questions and answers" probably did happen.

I was deposing an old man last week. He was expressing worry about the power transformer at the end of his street -- the one that had been there for all of the 37 years he had lived in the house.

"For 37 years," he said, "I've stopped in front of that transformer every time I drove to work."

"Why did you stop there," I asked him.

"Because there's a goddamn stop sign."

People don't like lawyers, I think, because they don't expect lawyers to be honest -- to tell the truth. People think of lawyers as people who twist words or take things out of context.

There's an old story about the lawyer from Down East Maine --

"What would you say about Lawyer Shackford over there --- would you call him an honest man or a liar?"

"Well I don't know if he's a liar, but I've heard tell when he wants to get his cows to come in from pasture, he has to get someone else to call 'em."

EddieP said...

A man caught embezzling millions from his employer went to his lawyer. His lawyer said, "Don't worry. You'll never have to go to jail with all that money. The lawyer was right. By the time the man got to jail, he was dead broke.

mcg said...

I have found the lawyers that I have hired to be among the most scrupulously honest people I've worked with. Honest in the precise way they accounted for and billed their time, and farmed out as much work as possible to assistants who could do it more cheaply; and honest in the sense that they told me where I should fight, where I should compromise, and where I should give in, in no uncertain terms.

To be fair, I never worked with one on a contingency basis. I suppose that the allure of a big judgement might be a real temptation to some lawyers. But then again, put anyone in that monetary situation and they would likely be similarly tempted.

That won't stop me from sharing a joke though.

Why don't sharks bite lawyers?
Professional courtesy!

Simon said...

People don't like lawyers, I think, because they don't expect lawyers to be honest -- to tell the truth. People think of lawyers as people who twist words or take things out of context.

...And I don't think that's just because of frivolous injury lawsuits ("hurt yourself at work? Completely your own fault? Call 1-800-BLOODSUCKER and we'll find someone to blame") - I think part of it is because lawyers are often (in fact or in popular perception) as zealous in trying to defend an innocent man as a guilty man. Of exploiting loopholes in the law, gaps in the evidence, and painfully minor procedural lapses on the part of the police to get a guilty man off the hook.

It begs the question, what is an appropriate defense when the client is guilty?

SteveR said...

As I mentioned above about self regulation, according to the California Bar regarding David Westerfield's defense in the murder of Danielle van Dam, knowingly lying to a jury is ok. At least that's how I saw it, but I'm sure there's a "legitimate" excuse.

Joe Zwers said...

The number of civil cases at both the federal and state levels have declined over the past decade, and the number of cases going to trial has declined even further. One factor in the number of civil cases is that more cases are going to arbitration than to the courts. Here are links to a couple short, non-technical articles covering that topic.

clint said...

Lawyer jokes aren't particularly new. See Shakespeare's humorous campaign promises of utopia:

I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
And here is where Dick speaks the famous line.
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
Henry VI

Or, even farther back, this quip attributed to an Ancient Roman citizen's will: "I, Lucius Titus, have written this, my testament, without any lawyer, following my own natural reason rather than excessive and miserable diligence."

Which makes a nice lead-in to my favorite lawyer joke:

Two men get lost in a fog bank while flying in a hot-air balloon. After a few hours, the fog clears a bit, and they find themselves over a golf course. With a bit of effort, they lower the balloon enough to make themselves hear, and shout down to a golfer: "Halloo! Can you tell us, please, where are we?"

The golfer thought for a moment, and then, carefully enunciating every word, shouted back: "You are up in a hot-air balloon."

As the balloon drifted away, one man remarked to his companion, "That golfer must have been a lawyer. His advice was very precise, entirely correct, and totally worthless."

Aaron said...

As someone who recently started a business one of the things that I have noticed and could be part of the resentment of lawyers is that they have made themselves indispensible without adding real value. You can't get things done in business without a lawyer but that seems largely because of other lawyers. You need a lawyer to interface with the government, other businesses, your employees - they have inserted themselves between everyone and charge you for it. This has all sorts of effects. One of the largest things is that we have moved away from trust between folks to the letter of the law. Maybe this is for the best - generally as long as both sides have adequate representations there may be a higher level of clarity about obligations etc. A lawyer is pretty good abnout enumerating what people owe each other under different circumstances - but not all circumstances can be foreseen - and every contingency your lawyer plans for is another round of negotiation. Plus - a contract is never so clad in iron that someone cannot sue - so you really don't feel like your lawyer gave you something of value. On the whole I doubt lawyers add more value than they take away from our professional relationships or businesses.

Aaron said...

I should say that that my previous comment is overstated to this extent: we should only have enough lawyers operating in business to the extent that they allow different people and institutions to interface and peacably settle differences. I believe that there are more lawyers operating than are necessary to do accomplish this function. Because their product/service is ephemeral and intellectual the laws of supply and demand do not work. The more lawyers there are the more it is necessary to use the services of a lawyer. I can't think of another self-perpetuating good or service.

Bruce Hayden said...

A lot of good points. My father, who practiced for 47 years before retiring in 1997, blames a lot of it on advertising. Back when he started, that was just not done.

I put a lot of blame on tort lawsuits. I think few can justify the contingency fees earned for many massive tort cases, including asbestos and tobacco. The later paid billions upon billions in legal fees. And if the price of your stock goes up, fine, and if it goes down, you get sued by Larouch (however you spell his name). I find esp. egregious all those class action suits where the alleged plaintiffs get coupons, whereas the attorneys get wads of cash. You get the idea.

And I hear all the time from our tort brethern how they are helping the small guy and their suits don't cost that much. But just talk to almost any MD, and they will tell you of all the defensive medicine they practice just to minimize their malpractice exposure (some have estimated over half of their tests are so motivated). So, yes, the tort attys. often justify their practice by ignoring the real costs of their suits.

Another thing that hurt was Cannon 7, zealous representation, which arguably justified almost anything to win. Luckily, most jurisdictions have recognized this as a problem and tempered this ethical requirement.

Finally, someone commented awhile back that attorneys revel in splitting hairs and detail. But, unfortunately, they are also the ones drafting the laws. The result has been, as someone suggested above, that attorneys have made themselves essential in dealing with the government.

Meade said...

Every truly humorous lawyer joke ( there are only a few) was told to me by a lawyer. Same is true of dumb blonde jokes only none of those have been in fact humorous.

Donna B. said...

My favorite source of lawyer humor is Jerry Buchmeyer, now available on the internet: Say What?!

Robert Schwartz said...

Gallanter was a crackpot left-wing sociologist of sorts before he landed in law school. If he says the litigation explosion is a myth, ask him why there are all these lawyers running around driving fancy cars and living in big houses. And why does anybody in his right mind go to law school.

mr. weg said...

This quote is from the linked article:

"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."

I think some people saw things Galanter's way - minorities, liberals, young people - but older and more middle-class people perhaps saw the some changes in the law as affording fewer protections to victims of crime and working to ensure that criminals would not be held to account.

Lawpolprof said...

Galanter is only one of several studies to document the myth of the litigation explosion. Yet the myth has taken on a life of its own - becoming fodder not just on late night TV, but in state legislatures as well. Michael McCann and Bill Haltom's award winning "Distorting the Law" is an excellent read on the subject.

Jack Roy said...


Thoughtful, reasoned, and considerate. Yet I'm afraid your point doesn't stand up to the devastating power of Robert Schwartz' keypad-captured spasm.

Aaron said...

I still don't think that the number or even size of law suits is the most important aspectof why one can advocate against lawyers in good conscience. Whether there are more or less law suits for more or less money - whether the reasons people sue are lamer than before - the fact of the matter is that everyone is at the mercy of lawyers. While we should all be subject to the law the necessity of protecting yourself from legal problems is a burden with little benefit. Most tragic is the fact that it is now almost impossible for a layman to work with the government without the help of a lawyer. It was lawyers who designed a system that guaranteed they were a necessity. That breeds resentment. Especially when they charge hefty fees in return for getting you things that you shouldn't have had to pay a lawyer for in the first place. There is an old yiddish curse, "May you be in a lawsuit in which you are in the right". Lawyers give the most benefit to those in the wrong.

John Thacker said...

To put my previous comments in a different way, surely lawyers are familiar with the concept of "chilling effect." Reasonable fear of lawsuit can cause many costly regulations that make people on net worse off-- for example, I know school systems that now ban teachers from driving vans because of one lawsuit elsewhere, resulting in much less after-school activities than before.

The boundary of what behavior could invite a lawsuit and thus invites a chilling effect can shift even without an actual increase in the amount of litigation. Indeed, a shift in what behavior can be successfully sued can occur even amid a decrease in the number of lawsuits. So long as organizations behave in a risk-averse manner (and punitive awards exist), this can easily happen. Organizations merely must continue to modify their behavior, and the lawsuits shift to occupy new territory.

Hence the denial of a "litigation explosion" is a straw man argument. The question is whether there is behavior that previously was considered acceptable and did not carry with it a fear of litigation that is now banned or much more expensive than it used to be. At least with school systems, this is certainly true. After-school and extracurricular programs are much more expensive than they used to be because of fear of lawsuit. The cost of fear of litigation can be much more than the actual cost of trials.

Robert said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.