Vol. 15 No.10 (October 2005), pp.929-932
LOWERING THE BAR: LAWYER JOKES AND LEGAL CULTURE, by Marc Galanter. Madison, WI: Univeristy of Wisconsin Press, 2005. 430pp. Cloth. $45.00. ISBN 0-299-21350-1.
Reviewed by Brian Z. Tamanaha, St. John’s University School of Law. Email: tamanahb [at] stjohns.edu
It is rare to find a book that skillfully weaves together empirical data, sociological analysis, and broad knowledge about the legal profession, in a pleasantly readable package that delivers multiple insights about contemporary legal culture in the United States. It is unique to find a book with all of these qualities that is also funny. Marc Galanter manages to pull off this feat in LOWERING THE BAR.
Did you hear about the post office having to cancel its commemorative issue honoring lawyers? It seems that it was too confusing—people didn’t know which side of the stamp to spit on. (p.198)
His basic idea was simple, yet brilliant and executed to perfection: the quality and quantity of lawyer jokes, with particular attention to changes manifested over time, provide a rich empirical body of material from which to glean prevailing views about lawyers, and this in turn says something about the role of law and lawyers in society. Information about public attitudes toward lawyers is usually found in public opinion polls, research findings on views of lawyers, newspaper reports, and popular culture – film and television portrayals, and popular novels. Galanter draws upon and refers to all of these sources as well, but adds an exhaustive examination of the entire corpus of lawyer jokes to the mix, going back several hundred years, though concentrating mainly on the last three decades. The crucial ingredient that helps it all come together is the vast body of knowledge Galanter has produced and accumulated in the past three decades as one of the preeminent scholars of the legal profession. He uses this combination to produce a portrait of surprising depth. Who would have thought that so much serious information could be found in jokes?
A doctor and a lawyer in two cars collided on a country road. The lawyer, seeing that the doctor was a little shaken up, helped him from the car and offered him a drink from his hip flask. The doctor accepted and handed the flask back to the lawyer, who closed it and put it away. “Aren’t you going to have a drink yourself?” asked the doctor. “Sure, after the police leave,” replied the attorney. (p.160)
Galanter tracked down and compiled every lawyer joke he could find. He pared the total down to about 300 jokes, organized into themes and recited individually, with commentary. Part One sets out the enduring themes of lawyer jokes—Chapter One: Lies and Stratagems; Chapter Two: Economic Predator; Chapter Three: Playmates of the Devil; Chapter Four: Lawyers as Fomenters of Strife; Chapter Five: Demography of the World of Lawyer Jokes. Part Two categorizes jokes that [*930] have arisen since about 1980—Chapter Six: Betrayers of Trust; Chapter Seven: Morally Deficient; Chapter Eight: Objects of Scorn; Chapter Nine: Death Wish Jokes. Part Three reflects on prevailing views about lawyers and justice in America—Chapter Ten: Enemies of Justice; Chapter Eleven: Only in America?
[A lawyer explaining his fees to his client] “If you want justice, it’s two hundred dollars an hour. Obstruction of justice runs a bit more.” (p.238)
In each Chapter, Galanter presents jokes interspersed with commentary of varying lengths, from a single paragraph to many pages long. Usually the jokes are comprised of a string of different ones on selected sub-themes; a few times he recites successive versions of the same joke to allow readers to observe its evolution. The commentary offers background, indicates whether it was a joke original to lawyers or converted to lawyers from some other source, reflects on the assumptions underlying the joke, and reveals what it implies about lawyers. This information is often quite telling, as when he informs us that the stamp joke (the first one above) was originally told of Hitler and Stalin, and only later was told of lawyers. At the end of most chapters, and several times at the beginning as well, Galanter offers several pages of information and analysis on what can be learned about the legal culture from the jokes. The final Chapter is pure commentary, making quite serious points to conclude this book filled with jokes.
Q: Why are lawyers buried twenty-five feet under ground?
A: Cause deep down they’re really nice guys. (p.215)
To understand how this book works, think of the jokes as butterflies carefully pinned to the pages in a thought-out order, with written observations in between, noting origin, family, and other distinguishing characteristics, followed at the end of each sub-group by extensive insights on their place in nature. The butterflies are interesting to look at and necessary support for the conclusions drawn, but all the crucial information is delivered in the commentaries. That holds for this book as well. Galanter’s commentaries are ambitious forays into a variety of subjects, ranging from the lawyer’s relationship with clients, to the implications of legalization of society, the role of lawyers in secularized society, the consequences of the increase in the number of lawyers since the 1960s, the continuing lack of lawyers for the poor, the differentiation of the legal profession, and the role lawyers play in securing justice.
A businessman was involved in a lawsuit that dragged on for years. One afternoon he told his attorney, “Frankly, I’m getting tired of all this litigation.” The lawyer replied, “Nonsense. I propose to fight this case down to your last nickel.”(p.133)
Galanter’s core thesis is that a dramatic increase in the quantity and nastiness of lawyer jokes has occurred since about 1980 – particularly jokes that scorn or wish death upon lawyers – which he attributes to public resentment and anxiety about the extent to which law dominates daily life in our highly legalized society. When drawing this conclusion, he considers and dismisses other possible explanations, and he engages in comparisons with other societies. American exceptionalism [*931] apparently extends to lawyer jokes—no other society comes close in having such vituperative and plentiful jokes about lawyers. Americans are boxed in by law, and they need and want the law when things go wrong. Thus people simultaneously resent and depend upon lawyers—opinion polls show that people regard lawyers generally in a poor light, while they are satisfied with their own lawyer. Many think the law mainly backs the rich. Many are frustrated by the apparent disconnect between law and justice. Many demand more from the law, and the failure to satisfy this increased demand generates a backlash. Rather than blame the system, Galanter observes, this anger and frustration is displaced onto lawyers. It is easier to make fun of lawyers than it is to contemplate that the system might be fundamentally flawed.
A man went to see a lawyer and asked what his least expensive fee was. The lawyer replied, “$50 for three questions.”
Stunned, the man asked, “Isn’t that a lot of money for three questions?”
“Yes,” the lawyer said. “What is your final question?”(pp.85-86)
In the course of his analysis Galanter makes many interesting and novel connections. For example, although a newer category of jokes paints the lawyer as a betrayer of trust, the victims in the jokes usually are other professionals, but seldom the client. Galanter points out that this is consistent with the general view that a lawyer doggedly (perhaps to a fault) pursues her client’s cause at the expense of truth, morality, and the social good. Moreover, all of the “betrayer of trust” jokes that are now being directed at lawyers were formerly told of other groups—many in relation to Jews. The “three questions” joke recited immediately above was formerly told of Gypsies and fortune tellers. Galanter suggests that one factor contributing to the rise in lawyer jokes is that political correctness renders it less acceptable to make fun of ethnic or religious groups, so lawyers have become a preferred target. But it still says something about the perception of lawyers that they have become the butt of these types of jokes—jokes only work if there is some connection with the target. Another suggestive observation made by Galanter, one which bears further examination, is that societies can be equally “legalized” in the sense of having a dense set of rules and regulations governing social interaction, but not equally place law at the center of things, or at least not place law at the center of public perception. This point comes out in his comparison of lawyer jokes in United Kingdom (and elsewhere), which are less numerous and are much milder than those in the United States. Although there may be about the same amount of government regulation in both societies, in the UK (unlike the US), courts and lawyers are not the primary vehicles of legalization, so they do not generate a similar degree of attention and ire.
What do you call an attorney who describes himself as a criminal lawyer? Self-aware. (p.180)
Perhaps Galanter’s most provocative observation is that, although quantity and nastiness has increased, one category of jokes, and one category alone, is conspicuous by its absence: jokes about justice, once a part of the standard corpus, are now rare, falling into disuse before the recent explosion. That is odd. Galanter speculates why: [*932] “Older jokes that pointedly depicted lawyers as agents of injustice . . . have dropped out, perhaps because the notion of lawyers abruptly changing course or undermining the public interest for private advantage no longer violates our expectations with sufficient force. Lawyers are viewed as instruments of private will rather than as guardians of public weal” (p.246). His point is that the old jokes about lawyers subverting justice no longer work as jokes because people no longer think lawyers have any connection with justice. Now that’s a sobering thought.
Did you hear the good news and the bad news? The good news is that a bus load of lawyers just ran off the cliff. The bad news is that there were three empty seats on the bus. (p.213)
Anyone interested in the legal profession, in legal culture generally, and in the role lawyers play in our society, should read this book. You will be entertained along the way, but this is no laughing matter.
There is an old story of a lawyer named Strange and his wife having a conference as to the things he wished done after he had departed this life.
“I want a headstone put over me, my dear,” said the lawyer, “with the simple inscription—‘Here lies an honest lawyer.’”
The wife expressed surprise that he did not wish his name put on the headstone. “It will not be needful,” he responded, “for those who pass by and read that inscription will invariably remark: ‘That’s Strange.’” (p. 36)
© Copyright 2005 by the author, Brian Z. Tamanaha.