Jokes part of a lawyer’s life
Why won’t sharks attack lawyers? Professional courtesy. It is a gem of a joke: succinct, biting (pun intended), cute, and hinting that even the most dastardly creatures have a code of conduct. Simply classic.
My new favorite take on this trope, found after scouring the Internet, goes like this: “Why are lawyers like nuclear weapons? If one side has one, the other side has to get one. Once launched, they cannot be recalled. When they land, they screw up everything forever.” It humorously encapsulates the zeitgeist’s impression of lawyers. Yet my research also turned up an alarming amount of lawyer jokes whose humor was rooted in the dismemberment or other untimely demise of an attorney. Despite trying to take it all in stride, the experience was a bit rattling. Possessing a reformer’s attitude toward the legal profession, I nonetheless instinctively felt defensive about the jokes, quips and anecdotes with which I was assaulted. As it happens, lawyer jokes are not always a laughing matter.
As an attorney, when it comes to these jokes, one has two options: either embrace them or be insulted by them. Regardless, you will hear them, and often. Taking offense or offering a rebuttal once seemed to me to be wasted energy and, in public, I tended to go with the flow. This reaction was made easier because it is usually some boorish sort who launches into a tirade and a flash of lawyer jokes as soon as he learns your livelihood. No doubt, many of the jokes are quite funny, in the cheap way of all stereotype-based humor. My wife does not get upset at blonde jokes; we all know she is brilliant.
But, after a while, the jokes work counter to their intended purpose. They make me sad. Not just for the unoriginal buffoon spewing them, but because the base of their humor approaches fact. The themes are a constant: greed, duplicitous behavior, lacking a soul, arguing for its own sake. I see that from my legal brethren on an almost daily basis.
Yes, I have positive interactions and that oddly makes me sad, too. The lawyers out there doing the right thing are spitting into the wind; their efforts are being subsumed by who society expects them to be. People hear that I am a lawyer and expect the worst. Or, if I have not shaved in a while, they simply don’t believe that I am an attorney. In either event, I have to actively break the stereotype with each interaction. I welcome the opportunity to change attitudes, but sometimes it can be exhausting.
Lawyer jokes influence lawyer behavior in related, but divergent ways. They can serve as a deterrent. Faced with a difficult moral or ethical choice, the attorney is pushed in the direction of virtue by his fear that he will be seen as the lawyer who serves as the joke’s protagonist. More troubling is the lawyer who sees such central character as a role model. No attorney should actively encapsulate a snake-like demeanor. Yet there are many, particularly litigators, who welcome the comparison as its plays into their either real or adopted persona as a person with whom one will need to reckon. In this view, the client’s interests are protected because there are few who will dare cross paths with a lawyer who is a known sociopath. I find that perspective more hilarious than any joke. An altered attitude about the propriety of lawyer jokes will not only help shape the public’s perception, but also the profession’s view of itself.
Adjusting My Joke Approach
I needed to adjust my approach to lawyer jokes. Once, not wanting to appear oversensitive, I chuckled politely. Nowadays, I view the telling of a joke at an attorney’s expense as an opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues plaguing the legal system and ways that it can be bettered.
Surely, there are many assets upon which the profession can base its rebuilding and rebranding effort. A shark may be perceived as a ruthless killing machine, but it is in fact a highly-evolved and cunning animal that, despite its sensitivities, has plied the oceans for millions of years. The lawyer has his own negative reputation, but has become a skilled orator and draftsman through decades of education and toil. The attorney uses those traits to the great advantage of clients in dire need of assistance. I harbor no illusions that this type of conversation will elicit belly laughs. I would settle for droll and still probably be disappointed. That is fine: revolution is not a comedy.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril, LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, please contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.rkvlaw.com.