- Galanter's argues that jokes
always reflect an underlying social tension that is difficult
to discuss directly. Therefore, jokes can instruct as well as
My Favorite Lawyer Joke
by John Denvir
A wealthy man on his death
bed called his three best friends-- his doctor, his priest, and
his lawyer-- to make a final request. "Who knows what I
will find on the other side? Just to be sure, I am giving you
each one hundred thousand dollars and I ask that you place an
envelope with that amount in my casket." All three took
the money and agreed to fulfill his wish.
He died soon thereafter and
at the funeral each friend slipped an envelope into the casket.
After the burial, the three walked together from the grave. The
doctor said, "My friends, I have a confession to make; since
the hospital was short of funds for treating the poor I only
put 80, 000 dollars in the envelope and donated the other 20,
000 to our indigent fund." The priest then said, "I
too have to confess that I gave 50,000 dollars to the homeless
and only put fifty thousand in the casket."
The lawyer looked both his
friends straight in the eye and said, "I am astonished and
deeply disappointed that you failed to keep your solemn promise
to our dear departed friend. I want you to know that I placed
in his coffin my personal check for the full 100, 000 dollars."
is just one of hundreds of lawyer jokes discussed in Marc Galanter's
excellent new book "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes in
Legal Culture" ( University of Wisconsin Press 2005).
But it would be a mistake to describe Galanter's book as merely
a compendium of lawyer jokes. It's an erudite study of what lawyer
jokes can tell us about the public's unconscious feelings-positive
and negative-- towards the legal profession. Galanter's argues
that jokes always reflect an underlying social tension that is
difficult to discuss directly. Therefore, jokes can instruct
as well as amuse us.
The "envelope in the casket"
story is my personal favorite in Galanter's book because I think
it best reflects the public's ambivalence towards lawyers. First,
let's remember that the story is in one sense is a pro-lawyer
joke. Galanter has a whole chapter on what he calls "death
wish" jokes. These are jokes where the punch line delights
in the death of lawyers: "What do you call six thousand
lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start."
In contrast, central to the
"envelope in the casket" joke is admiration for the
lawyer's cleverness in avoiding an absurd result. After all,
placing a hundred thousand dollars cash in a coffin as it enters
the ground is a rather silly act. It's hard to envisage any good
coming from it. Anyone hearing the joke realizes if there is
an afterlife, it's certain beyond a reasonable doubt that it
won't be a cash economy. So the lawyer found a clever way to
keep his promise without wasting the money. Perhaps the doctor
and the priest wish they had consulted counsel before throwing
away tens of thousands of dollars. This ability to twist language
to get the right result is why clients go to lawyers.
Yet there's no denying that
the joke leaves us with some moral queasiness. One problem is
that the lawyer's act is self-serving. Why is that? There is
no mention of his donating the 100,000 dollars to the legal aid
society. So too, he's a little self-satisfied, a bit too proud
of his cleverness. But our largest qualm has to do with whether
he has breached his friend's trust. In one sense he has; no one
thinks the dying man would have given him the money if he knew
it would be replaced with a check. Yet the lawyer did not receive
the money in a professional relationship; he was approached as
one of three friends, not as a lawyer. To refuse his friend's
request on the ground that it was patently ridiculous itself
would have been cold-hearted. He can rightly claim that he accomplished
two worthy goals; his reassured his friend and he managed not
to waste 100,000 dollars. That he personally benefited and is
so pleased with himself makes him a less admirable fellow, but
it's really irrelevant to the issue of trust.
I think the lawyer's real sin from the lay viewpoint is irreverence.
He has violated a social taboo about honoring "dying wishes."
But to the lawyer irreverence is not a sin, but a professional
virtue. Good lawyers always have to challenge social taboos in
their quest to shape the world according to fact and reason.
By so doing they de-mystify the world, showing it be the product
of human action rather than pre-ordained order. This necessarily
includes challenging long held social beliefs like the supposed
sanctity of dying wishes.
But while I don't think that
the lawyer has acted improperly, that doesn't mean he should
expect people to like him for his success. Like the gunslinger
in the Western movie, the lawyer is destined to be a social outsider,
admired and feared, but seldom loved by ordinary folk. At least,
that's my take. What do you think? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You might also want to pick up a copy of Professor Galanter's
Posted November 23, 2005
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