TRUTH AND NONSENSE ABOUT THE LEGAL PROFESSION
[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!]
material may be
for educational or academic purposes if cited or referred to as:
Peter Tiersma, Lawyer Jokes,
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
Still, many jokes express the theme
that the only
good lawyer is a dead one:
What's the difference between a dead skunk on the road and a dead
Answer: There are skid marks in front of
Here's another example:
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
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
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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."
thousand dollars per ounce!" Jane exclaimed. "Why
are lawyer's brains so
you have any idea how many lawyers have to die before I can harvest
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:
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
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
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.
only to confirm the
obvious, the American Bar
Association decided in 1993 to commission a public opinion poll to
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
They need a survey to tell
them this? They would
have known the same thing if they had just listened to some lawyer
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.
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
bill for $250.
works out to $1000 per hour," the lawyer protests.
"My hourly rate is high, but nothing
was mine when I practiced
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
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
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:
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.
If lawyers seem uncaring, it may be
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!
"What happened?" they ask the
lawyer. "How can you be in such great shape when Mother Teresa
The lawyer shrugged. "I
guess she never found the water hole."
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
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.
might your wish be?" the leprechaun asks.
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
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."
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,
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.
How can you tell that a lawyer is lying?
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.
Answer: His lips are moving.
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:
lawyer didn't want to marry his wife for her money. But there was no
other way to get it.
Here's another one:
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
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
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
9. All in a Day's Work
Legal humor implies that lawyers are lazy and do little
What do lawyers and sperm have in common?
Here is another example with the same
Answer: Only one in two million
does any real work.
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.
looks at this watch; it is four o'clock.
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
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
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
In the popular mind, reflected by several jokes, lawyers
are still portrayed as the proverbial chasers of ambulances.
you hear about the lawyer hurt in an accident?
An ambulance backed
Question: Why is it that many lawyers
have broken noses?
Answer: From chasing parked
Question: What do you call a
who doesn't chase ambulances?
Some lawyers do, in fact, aggressively pursue clients,
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:
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!"
course, to a
large extent, making the best possible argument for
your client is exactly what lawyering is all about.
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
the Godfather with a lawyer?
An offer you can't understand.
spoken legal language is not always understood, which can be a problem
for people who find themselves involved in legal proceedings:
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:
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
"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.
lawyer joke? Send it to me (Peter.Tiersma@lls.edu). I've
probably run across it, but you never know!