[This is a summary of a manuscript that I wrote several years ago.  I was not able to find a publisher at the time, so I decided to at least publish a summary on the web.  If you are a publisher and are interested, let's talk!]

[This material may be used for educational or academic purposes if cited or referred to as:

Peter Tiersma, Lawyer Jokes,]

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1. Let's Kill All the Lawyers

Shakespeare ("let's kill all the lawyers") is generally misunderstood as having advocated killing all the lawyers.  In fact,  the quotation comes from the play The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth.  The play describes a scheme to overthrow the government, supported by irresponsible promises of free food and drink, plentiful beer, and the abolition of money.  It is in this context that Dick the Butcher suggests killing all the lawyers. 

Still, many jokes express the theme that the only good lawyer is a dead one:

Question: What's the difference between a dead skunk on the road and a dead lawyer?
 Answer: There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

Here's another example:

A busload of lawyers going to a legal convention careened off a cliff the other day, killing all occupants.  It was a terrible tragedy.  There were three empty seats!

After recent attacks on lawyers, some have suggested that jokes of this kind are a type of "hate speech."   Violence against lawyers tends to get a lot of press.  There clearly are some people who tend to blame lawyers for their problems, and on rare occasion someone decides to take it out on his or her lawyer.  As a general matter, however, statistics show that lawyers are most likely to die in bed.  In fact, being a lawyer turns out to be one of the safest of all professions. 

2. The New Ethnics

Ethnic humor has become politically incorrect during the past decades, but jokes still need a victim. Lawyers have become an obvious and convenient replacement target:

Question: What do you get when you cross a lawyer with a Mafioso?
Answer: A hitman who misses.

Here's another example:

Two lawyers are on a commercial flight to San Francisco when the stewardess, in a panicked voice, announces that the pilot has passed out and asks whether any of the passengers can fly.  The lawyers, both of whom have their pilot's license, rush to the cockpit.  

George takes over the controls and heads towards the nearest airport.  He brings the airplane to a screeching halt, almost going over the end of the runway.  "That is the shortest runway I've ever seen!" he shouts to Bernie.  "It can't be more than a hundred feet long!"

"Yeah," Bernie answers, "but it must be at least a mile wide!"

This joke almost certainly started out in life as an ethnic joke (fill in your favorite ethnicity for the lawyer--I have heard it as a Polish joke in the United States and as a Belgian joke in the Netherlands).  It doesn't really work all that well as a lawyer joke, because it contradicts the stereotype that lawyers are smart and cunning (see next section).

The jokes that began as ethnic jokes, and are now told as lawyer jokes, don't really tell us much about the image of the profession, however.   They are just jokes looking for an alternative target, and lawyers fit the bill.  What we need to do is single out the "real" lawyer jokes.

3. Dumb Lawyers?

There are several jokes that portray lawyers as stupid:

Thanks to progress in medical technology, it has become possible to buy brain material from people who have died.  Jane, who was born with less than her fair share of cerebral matter, enters a brain shop and inquires about prices.

"Well," the shopkeeper replies, "you can purchase doctors' brains for $100 an ounce, and Ph.D.s go for $200 per ounce.  Then, I've got lawyers' brains for $10,000 per ounce."

"Ten thousand dollars per ounce!" Jane exclaimed.  "Why are lawyer's brains so expensive?"

"Do you have any idea how many lawyers have to die before I can harvest just one ounce of brains?" the shopkeeper responded.

Lawyers are not dumb, however. Perhaps a reason for such jokes is to pull lawyers down from their perch. Other "dumb lawyer" jokes, like ethnic jokes, are just looking for a victim. Nonetheless, "dumb lawyer jokes" do suggest that the public does not always hold lawyers in especially high regard.

4. A Legal Bestiary

Lawyers are often compared to snakes, sharks, bottomsuckers, skunks, or vultures:

Question: What's the difference between a lawyer and a snake?
Answer: You don't know either?

The comparison to the devil in the Garden of Eden is inevitable.  In addition, snakes--although they are actually very beautiful animals--tend to be considered very slimey creatures.  Here's another joke that exploits that same theme:

A blind snake meets a blind rabbit.  To figure out what kind of creature it has come across, the snake coils itself around the rabbit.  "You're warm and fluffy, you have long ears, strong hind legs and a cold, twitching nose.  You must be a bunny rabbit!"

"Right," says the rabbit.  "Now let me try to feel what you are."  The rabbit cuddles up next to the snake. "You're cold, you're slimy, and you have a forked tongue," the rabbit says.  "You must be a lawyer!"

Basically, lawyers are portrayed as slimy and cold-hearted predators who speak with a forked tongue. Opinion surveys confirm the impression that overall, the public has a poor image of lawyers.

If only to confirm the obvious, the American Bar Association decided in 1993 to commission a public opinion poll to gauge the public perception of its members.  The five most common complaints about lawyers, according to this study:

     lawyers are too expensive
     they are greedy
     they are not honest
     there are too many lawyers
     lawyers are self-serving, don't care about clients

They need a survey to tell them this?  They would have known the same thing if they had just listened to some lawyer jokes!

Most lawyers I know do not fit these stereotypes, but it is hard to know how best to change such perceptions.  Educating the public, while at the same time weeding out the rotten apples, are the obvious ways to go.  And it would help a lot if all lawyers devoted more of their time on a pro bono basis to promote the public good and help out those who cannot afford to pay for legal services.

5. Too Many Lawyers?

Various jokes suggest that there are too many lawyers.

Hear about the terrorist that hijacked a 747 full of lawyers?  He threatened to release one every hour if his demands weren't met.

In fact, surveys show that lawyers themselves may believe that there are too many lawyers, as the following reflects:

A lawyer's VCR breaks down one day, so she calls a repair service.  Within ten or fifteen minutes the repairman has the machine working again, and hands the lawyer a bill for $250. 

 That works out to $1000 per hour," the lawyer protests.  "My hourly rate is high, but nothing like that!"

     "Neither was mine when I practiced law!"

It is not easy to figure out what is "too many."  Although the U.S. does have a high rate of lawyers, comparisons with other industrialized nations are difficult to make. Japan has far fewer "lawyers" than the United States, for example, but there are many people there who work in a legal capacity but are not considered "lawyers."  Another consideration is that although the United States now has roughly one million lawyers, many of them are not necessarily practicing law.  Still, a million lawyers is quite a few!

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that our percentage of the world's lawyers is not that different from our percentage of the world's gross domestic product (GDP). Law professor Marc Galanter points out that American lawyers represent about twenty‑five and thirty‑five percent of the world's lawyers. This seems like a lot, but we Americans consume also around 30% percent of the world's resources,according to Werner Fornos, president of the Population Institute.  And the gross national product of the United States is also roughly 30% of the global total. So our production of goods and consumption of resources is quite similar to our consumption of legal resources. Maybe we aren't that terribly out of line, after all.

6. The Legal Personality

Some jokes suggest that lawyers have no personality at all. Others portray them as mean and aggressive, opinionated, and vain. Lawyers are also depicted as sleazy or slimy, which seems to result in large part from the fact that the clients and causes they represent are viewed as sleazy, an image that rubs off on the lawyers. Lawyers are furthermore felt to be quite materialistic and as less than generous in helping others:

My lawyer is very generous; he makes large donations to every possible charity. And to prove that he doesn't do it for the glory, he makes the gifts anonymously--he won't even sign the checks!

In reality, some law firms are quite generous with their time and money, although others are less so; significantly, the profession has not met the ABA minimum pro bono standards yet.

Additionally, jokes do not portray lawyers as particularly glamorous, even though lawyers themselves may believe that they are. And they are often viewed as immoral and uncaring:

A corporate lawyer and Mother Teresa are stranded in the desert after their airplane crashed.  A week later, a search party arrives to rescue them.  The party finds the lawyer relaxing in the shade of a cactus, while Mother Teresa has shriveled up and died of thirst.

"What happened?" they ask the lawyer.  "How can you be in such great shape when Mother Teresa has died?"

The lawyer shrugged.  "I guess she never found the water hole."

If lawyers seem uncaring, it may be because they typically do not choose their clients.  They take whatever cases walk in the door.  Sometimes it can be a terrific case that you really believe it, on other occasions you do your best for a client who is far from perfect.  And, of course, lawyers often take a case purely for money.  No one complains when an accountant takes a client for purely economic reasons, but people do seem to think that lawyers should be held to a somewhat higher standard.  And maybe they should be!

A few lawyers have managed to remain idealistic and take only cases they believe in, but they are usually poorly paid and such jobs are few. If the profession wishes to improve its image, it could work at providing more opportunities for idealistic law school graduates to engage in legal work that makes a difference.

7. Is There an Honest Lawyer in the House?

Many jokes intimate that the legal profession is unethical or dishonest. Even members of the bar seem to agree that their colleagues do not always have the highest ethical standards, according to one survey.  Jokes convey a similar message:

           It is St. Patrick's day, and as luck would have it, Kevin comes across a leprechaun.  He pounces on the leprechaun and asks to be granted his wish.

"What might your wish be?" the leprechaun asks.

Kevin pulls out a map of the world and points out a wide swarth of North America.  "That's what I want," he declares.

"That's a rather tall order," the leprechaun says.  "And to be honest, I'm not all that experienced yet in granting wishes.  Is there something else I can do for you instead?"

Kevin ponders this for a while.  "I guess I'll settle for the name of an honest lawyer."

The leprechaun rolls his eyes.  "Let me see that map again."

A possible reason for the perception that lawyers tend to be dishonest is that there is very strong pressure on lawyers to win cases.  For some lawyers--who knows how many--it's not how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose.  This is especially likely to be true if the lawyer takes a case on a contingent fee basis.

Furthermore, the profession's notions of ethical conduct do not always overlap with views of the public.  For instance, the lawyer's main duty is to her client, not the public good.  If the public sees lawyers defending of questionable ethics, they can quite naturally think that the lawyer shares the client's values.  That might be true, but it need not necessarily be the case. 

Jokes also suggest that lawyers often lie.

Question: How can you tell that a lawyer is lying? 

Answer: His lips are moving.

I tend to think that outright lies by lawyers are not all that common, but it is true that many lawyers are inclined to distort the truth somewhat during argument, and they are often tempted to allow clients to fudge the truth in court.

So what't the bottom line on lawyers' ethics?  Are the jokes right?  My view is that jokes tend to exaggerage the lack of ethics.  But it is certainly true that lawyers are often under pressure to let their ethics go by the wayside, or simply get greedy.  Any lawyer you ask can tell you stories about the ethical lapses of other lawyers.  So there is plenty of room for improvement.

8. Money, Money, Money

Lawyers are greedy and wealthy, according to the jokes:

My lawyer didn't want to marry his wife for her money. But there was no other way to get it.

Here's another one:

Question: Why did the state bar association make it unethical for lawyers to have sex with their clients?

Answer: It wanted to prevent lawyers from billing twice for the same service.

Surveys confirm that the public believes lawyers make too much money.

Lawyers do earn quite a bit more than the average person. 
Those at the top of the pinnacle can do very well indeed.  A few of the largest and most prestigious New York law firms paid their first-year associates--straight out of law school--over $80,000 per year in 1994.   In around 1999 or 2000, some of the top firms in the Silicon Valley, followed by a few other top firms in big cities on the coasts, began to pay beginning salaries of around $125,000.  You don't want to know how many hours those associates put in every day!

In fact, there is great variation in what lawyers earn.  A survey of smaller law firms around the United States showed an average profit per partner in 1994 of somewhat over $110,000, which is a respectable salary but does not seem outlandish.   Those thinking about entering the profession might be interested to know that the median salary of a lawyer six months after graduation from law school in the mid 1990s was $40,000 per year.  Those in private practice averaged $50,000 their first year, while more idealistic new lawyers working in public interest jobs made around $30,000.   Obviously, although these figures are now somewhat dated, it is clear that not everyone with a law degree is fabulously wealthy. 

9. All in a Day's Work

Legal humor implies that lawyers are lazy and do little work:

Question: What do lawyers and sperm have in common?
Answer: Only one in two million does any real work.

Here is another example with the same theme:

          A law school graduate is being interviewed for a job at a prestigious downtown law firm.  "Where do you hope to find yourself four or five years from now?" the hiring partner asks.

          The young man looks at this watch; it is four o'clock. 

          "On the golf course," he replies.

These days, nothing could be further from the truth than the notion that lawyers are lazy and don't work much. Most lawyers pride themselves in how hard they work, something that is confirmed by the minimum number of billable hours at many firms.  According to Yale Law School Career Development Office, most firms state that they expect associates to bill somewhere between 1700 and 2300 hours per year.  You can do your own math, but I can tell you from personal experience that even to hit the lowest target, you need to be at work around 10 hours per workday, assuming you take two or three weeks off for vacation and holidays, and perhaps also an occasional weekend.  The reason is that to bill 8 hours a day, you should count on being at work around 10 hours to allow for breaks and doing work that cannot be billed to clients.

Most large firms expect substantially more than 1700 hours per year.  To reach these higher goals, associates will have to start working later and/or putting in more time during the weekends. 

In fact, many lawyers would prefer to work less or have a part-time job, but that option is difficult for structural reasons. With the development of computers and other home office technology, greater flexibility in how much and when lawyers work may become a reality.  But the notion that lawyers are lazy or spend a lot of time at the golf course is quite outdated, if it was ever true.

10. Ambulance Chasing for Fun and Profit

In the popular mind, reflected by several jokes, lawyers are still portrayed as the proverbial chasers of ambulances.

Did you hear about the lawyer hurt in an accident?
An ambulance backed up suddenly.

Question: Why is it that many lawyers have broken noses?
Answer: From chasing parked ambulances.

Question: What do you call a lawyer who doesn't chase ambulances?
Answer: Retired.

Some lawyers do, in fact, aggressively pursue clients, including one lawyer who has become known as the "master of disaster." Many state legislatures and bar associations have tried to limit the practice, but the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that to some extent lawyers have a First Amendment right to advertise and solicit clients. So, even though the profession would like to limit the ability of lawyers to advertise and solicit clients, lawyers will probably always find some way to approach potential clients.

11. Talking Heads

Jokes ridicule lawyers for using legalese, and suggest that the public does not understand it very well. Although lawyers defend legalese as particularly precise, it is also a way to mystify clients and help justify legal fees. Fortunately, there are efforts to make legal language more understandable. Lawyers also use a lot of language, leading to the perception that they are full of hot air. A somewhat contradictory theme is that they skillfully manipulate words to suit the purposes of their clients:

Did you hear about the old farmer who shot his wife? He had a great lawyer who got him off the hook.

"Be reasonable, Your Honor," the lawyer argued during the trial. "After all, my client's a widower!"

Of course, to a large extent, making the best possible argument for your client is exactly what lawyering is all about.

But even though lawyers have a repuation for being smooth talkers, many seem incapable of writing of ordinary English.  Instead, everything seems to come out in legalese, a point that joke-makers have not missed:

Question: What do you get when you cross the Godfather with a lawyer?

Answer: An offer you can't understand.

In fact, even spoken legal language is not always understood, which can be a problem for people who find themselves involved in legal proceedings:

Judge:           Are you the defendant?

Defendant:  Nope, I'm the guy who stole the chickens.

Another feature of legal language is that it is very impersonal (See my book for details: Peter Tiersma, Legal Language (1999).)  Here's an illustration of how using the passive voice can be a problem:

After a nasty divorce case, the judge came down strongly in favor of Mrs. Smith.  "This court orders that you shall be awarded $2000 per month in alimony," the judge solemnly intoned.

"That's very nice of you, Your Honor," Mr. Smith remarked.  "I'll try to chip in a few dollars now and then myself."

Fortunately, there is a movement afoot to make legal language more understandable to ordinary people.  In fact, you can find some details elsewhere on this site.

12. Justice

Lawyers and our legal system do not always seem to promote justice. To some degree this results from the fact that our system is adversarial. Lawyers vigorously represent the interests of their clients; through this process, truth and justice are presumed to prevail. The humor, on the other hand, seems to view the trial process more as a type of warfare, where winning depends on having the best lawyer, or influencing the judge. Jokes also suggest that people resent the fact that our justice system is an expensive way to settle disputes, that it is full of delays, and that the only real winners seem to be the lawyers:

"How can I ever thank you?" gushed a woman to Clarence Darrow, after he had solved her legal troubles.
"My dear woman," Darrow replied, "ever since the Phoenicians invented money there has been only one answer to that question."

Some of the humor goes a step further and suggests not only that the legal profession does not particularly promote justice, but that it actually attempts to thwart it by invoking legalistic rules and procedures. Unfortunately, such rules and procedures generally have some legitimate function; in fact, as our world becomes more crowded and complex, we will almost certainly need more regulation, rather than less.

Many people, seconded by jokes, believe that our tort system (which compensates people injured by the acts of others) is broken, citing cases like the woman who received millions of dollars in damages when she spilled hot coffee from McDonald's on her lap. Or consider this joke:

A golfer hooked his tee shot over a hill and onto the next fairway. Walking toward his ball, he found another golfer lying on the ground, groaning with pain.

"I'm an attorney," the injured man said, "and this is going to cost you at least $5000."

"I'm sorry, I'm really sorry," the concerned golfer replied. "But I did yell 'fore'."

"I'll take it!" the attorney exclaimed.

Because generally the most outrageous cases receive all the media attention, it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from them. Tort reform, such as that proposed in the Republican "Contract with America" a number of years ago,  has not made a great deal of headway because of opposition of consumer groups and trial attorneys. In any event, statistics do not support the notion that our tort system is wildly out of control.

At the same time, there are real problems with our system of compensating tort victims. Litigation is often like a lottery: those injured by a wealthy person or large corporation may hit the jackpot, while a person injured equally seriously by someone with little money or insurance may receive nothing. But the only effective alternative would be a government-run system of universal compensation for people injured by the acts of others. Western European systems of health care and unemployment insurance come close to creating such a system, but it is unlikely to be adopted in the United States anytime soon.


To some extent, lawyers will never be wildly popular, because they necessarily defend unpopular people and causes. At the same time, the lawyer jokes in this book identify several problem areas that the profession could address to enhance its image.

Know a good lawyer joke?  Send it to me (  I've probably run across it, but you never know!

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