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Bar News - December 14, 2007

Book Review: Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture By Marc Galanter


Q.  How many lawyers does it take to write a good book about lawyer jokes?


A.  One.  Assuming, that is, that the lawyer is Marc Galanter, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Centennial Professor in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the author of Lowering the Bar:  Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture (University of Wisconsin Press 2005).


When I was asked to review a book about lawyer jokes, I imagined a cheesy compilation of one-liners, suitable for sale at truckstops and discount pharmacies.  Lowering the Bar is not that.


True, the book does contain an exhaustive collection of lawyer jokes – probably every one you’ve ever heard, and about 200 more that you haven’t – but if that’s all you’re looking for, you surely can find a collection that’s shorter than 429 pages. 


There’s a lot more here than jokes.  As Galanter explains in his introduction, the book “explore[s] American legal culture by probing some of its less examined manifestations, especially the great stream of jokes about lawyers that has overflowed in recent years. The jokes are juxtaposed with other outcroppings of legal culture – public opinion as expressed in surveys; the discourse about law among political, media, and business elites; and the portrayal of law and lawyers in the media.”


Well put.  Galanter’s approach to his subject matter is nothing if not comprehensive.  He observes that there are a number of themes that surface repeatedly in lawyer jokes, and he organizes these themes into nine “clusters.”  Of these clusters, five focus on the bad things lawyers are accused of doing:  lawyers are (1) corrupters of discourse (Informed that the local lawyer is “lying at death’s door,” his neighbor replies, “That’s grit for you; at death’s door and still lying.”), (2) economic predators (A criminal defense lawyer moves for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence—”My client dug up $400 that I didn’t know he had.”), (3) fomenters of strife (A cartoon shows a young girl asking her mother, “When will I be old enough to start suing people?”), (4) betrayers of trust, and (5) enemies of justice (A lawyer in a cartoon explains to his client, “If you want justice, it’s $200 an hour.  Obstruction of justice runs a bit more.”). 


The other four clusters, according to Galanter, focus not on lawyers’ deeds but on their character.  These jokes characterize lawyers as (6) allies of the devil, (7) morally deficient, (8) objects of scorn, and (9) candidates for elimination.


One could quibble about whether there’s really a difference—isn’t one’s character essentially a reflection of one’s deeds, and vice versa?  If one lies, steals, and cheats, surely there comes a point at which moral deficiency must be acknowledged.  In any event, the author separately divides the clusters into two “waves”:  (1) an “enduring core” of themes that have been around for centuries, and (2) a relatively new set of themes that have become more common in the last few decades.


In fact, if there is one criticism that could be made of the book, it is the confusion created by Galanter’s overlapping classifications.  Of the five clusters focusing on bad deeds, four are part of the enduring core, and one is part of the new wave; of the four clusters focusing on bad character, three are in the new wave and one is part of the enduring core.  The categories of jokes are alphabetized throughout the book based on the deeds/character groupings, but the chapters are organized based on the enduring core/new wave division.  Trying to keep all this in one’s head is a serious project.


It is, however, a minor problem, and one the reader can avoid by not worrying about it.  Most likely, you will never be tested on whether a particular lawyer-joke theme is part of the enduring core or the new wave.


Classifications aside, the book is informative and entertaining.  The jokes are not always funny, but then, they’re not Galanter’s jokes—this is not a joke book, but a book about jokes.  Galanter does an impressive and credible job of tracing the histories of the jokes.  (The earliest one cited is from 1475, and is so humorless that it does not warrant repeating.  If one thing about the world has improved in 500 years, it’s that the jokes have gotten funnier.)  Every joke is footnoted—there are 80 pages of notes, along with a 54-page bibliography.  Among other observations, Galanter explains that many of the newer jokes started out as jokes about racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, and eventually evolved by substituting lawyers as their targets.  As racial and ethnic jokes came to be seen as inappropriate, lawyers remained fair game.


Why lawyers remain the butt of jokes that would be considered offensive as applied to other groups is the question that Lowering the Bar explores at length.  In this examination, the author might be expected to emerge as either a lawyer basher himself or an apologist for the profession.  Galanter is neither.  Instead, he engages in a dispassionate analysis of (among other phenomena) the relationship between jokes and popular opinions about lawyers, the fact that lawyer jokes have become noticeably more vicious in recent decades, the demography of lawyer jokes (which tend to focus on criminal or personal injury lawyers, rarely on big-firm corporate lawyers), and the virtual absence of lawyer jokes outside the United States.


It is hardly a light read.  Here is an excerpt from Galanter’s explanation of the uniquely American attitude toward lawyers:

We want our legal institutions to yield both comprehensive policy embodying shared public values and facilities for the relentless pursuit of individual interests.  But we are suspicious of the concentrated authority required for the former and reluctant to support the elaborate public machinery required to provide the latter routinely to ordinary citizens.  We prefer fragmented government and reactive legal institutions with limited resources, so that in large measure both the making of public policy and the vindication of individual claims are delegated to the parties themselves, who are left to fend according to their own resources.  In this complex system, lawyers form a major component of these resources.  But lawyers, each attached to her own client, cannot fulfill the fatally divided promise of substantive justice.


Boy, that sounds serious.  What makes Lowering the Bar work is that it appeals on two levels:  you can flip through the pages and just read the jokes (sort of like reading The New Yorker only for the cartoons—many of which, by the way, are reprinted in the book), or you can take some time and enjoy it as the scholarly work that it is.  Either approach should prove satisfying.


Cordell Johnston is Government Affairs Attorney at the NH Local Government Center in Concord.  He has been a member of the NH Bar since 1984.


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