THE BLOG

Can We Humanize Lawyers, or Are the Jokes Too Funny?

02/22/2013 10:09 EST | Updated 04/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Q: Why won't sharks attack lawyers?

A: Professional courtesy.

"Lawyer." These days just the word conjures up jokes.

Type "Lawyer Jokes" into Google and you get "About 2,760,000 results. "Suddenly you'll see pages and pages of sites dedicated to them. Most of the lawyer jokes portray lawyers as greedy, parasitical and soulless. And of course those are the nicer ones.

Q: What's the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer?

A: One's a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

In the Lawyer Jokes, lawyers are often compared unfavourably to various predators or insects. The lawyers then swiftly rob a blind elderly woman, or hurtle off a cliff en masse, or get buried entirely in cement. Yes, those are the gentler ones. There are even jokes about lawyer jokes.

Q: How many lawyer jokes are there?

A: Only three. The rest are true stories.

Lawyer jokes have been around for centuries, yes there's even sites dedicated to ancient and medieval lawyer jokery. But in modern times, it seems, the intensity and popularity of lawyer joking has gotten to the point where something had to be done.

The Ontario Bar Association has just launched a multi-pronged ad campaign to rescue the image of lawyers. But like a surprise punch line that campaign itself could be on its way to becoming more comedy. Predictably some of its harshest critics are lawyers themselves.

Mitch Kowalski, lawyer and author of Avoiding Extinction, Re-imagining Legal Services for the 21st Century, sums up the campaign in a word: Arrogant.

"Obviously," he said. "The OBA has too much money and doesn't know what to do with it."

His beef: While ostensibly attempting to "humanize" lawyers, the campaign does the opposite. First it asks a lot of its intended target -- the public. The print ad is basically a massive letter "I" filled with paragraphs of text, explaining why a particular Ontario Lawyer went to law school. By any marketing standards, the quantity of text is daunting and it seems to work from the assumption the public has a burning desire to know why lawyers became lawyers.

Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and God?

A: God doesn't think he's a lawyer.

A typical ad has one lawyer saying as a youth "had many dreams" that someday he "would make a difference in people's lives."

The goal is to show that many lawyers have diverse and admirable reasons for becoming lawyers, surely true. But he implementation moves swiftly into classic lawyer joke stereotype: That lawyers will inevitably assault you with an opaque wall of words. The ads are visually reminiscent of the endless legal disclaimers that precede new software that people habitually ignore.

Says Kowalski: "The ad campaign reminds me of the old joke that lawyers get paid by the word."

Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a herd of buffalo?

A: The lawyer charges more.

It's perhaps the comments made by people in the campaign itself that are most counter-productive. Here's how Brian Howlett, head creative for Agency59, the company behind the campaign, explained his theory about lawyer bashing to the Globe and Mail:

"There is probably a bit of envy,"Howlett said. "There may also be that insecurity you get when there is someone in the room who is smarter than you."

Translation: "You make lawyer jokes because you're jealous and a dumbass."

Under the headline "Self serving and self-defeating" Lawyer Jordan Furlong, writes in SLAW which bills itself as Canada online legal magazine:

"Seriously? The PR agency's head actually told the country's national newspaper that people are jealous because lawyers are so much smarter than they are?"

"Don't worry Ontario Law Society. It's just 95% of the lawyers that give the rest a bad name!"

Lawyer joke in the Globe and Mail letters section below a story about Lawyer Jokes.

If lawyers are trying to change the impression they are an arrogant and disconnected elite, a comment to the CBC about the campaign by the OBA President Morris Chochla may not help:

"If I go on the golf course and someone wants to tell me a lawyer joke, I turn around. I do not like lawyer jokes," Chochla said.

I'm sure the image of the poor OBA president having to turn around routinely on the golf course will surely bring tears to the eyes of average Canadian.

But whether the campaign is effective or not, does the OBA have a point? Is it true that everyone just makes fun of lawyers until they need one? Has lawyer joking gone too far? One of the things that characterizes some lawyer jokes is kind of jocular violence where the punch line celebrates the mass drowning or killing of lawyers.

Q: What do you call 25 lawyers buried up to their chins in cement?

A: Not enough cement.

So it's disturbing to note there have been a number of very unfunny attacks on lawyers. Here are just some recent ones. This January Mark Hummels, a well-liked Arizona-based lawyer, was murdered along with a client in Phoenix. In 1993, a possible disgruntled client shot eight people to death and committed suicide at the law firm Petitt and Martin. On February 3, the 28-year-old daughter of lawyer Randal Quan was murdered by the now infamous Christopher Dorner. While this is likely the work of the mentally unstable, lawyer bashing could be a factor.

Lawyers often blame public resentment of lawyers on the adversarial legal system. Lawyers must defend the most despicable members of society. But I think the public finds the entire legal system adversarial for a completely different reason. They feel both lawyers and the legal system are generally stacked unfairly against them. The number of people defending themselves in Canadian courts is reaching record levels possibly because people avoid lawyers and can't afford them.

Lawyers may be the taking some of the heat for people's problems with the system. Or maybe they just make a convenient scapegoat because they're so often in the public eye? Perhaps a study of the structure of jokes might shed light on the issue. A contemporary theory of humour is based on the rather fun-killing concept of pattern recognition.

British Evolutionary Theorist and humour expert Alastair Clarke, explains it in like this: humour can occur "when the brain recognises a pattern that surprises it." Here's an example:

Q: What's the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer?

A: A bad lawyer makes your case drag on for years. A good lawyer makes it last even longer.

The reversed pattern is a surprise. And if it's funny, it's because it reveals a sardonic truth; that good or bad, lawyers are against us. The key thing here is the joke only works if the surprising pattern is perceived as real.

So according to the laws of humour, if you really wanted to counter lawyer jokes, instead of turning your back when you hear them, you might be better off trying reduce the very patterns that breed them. You could do this simply by showing you were working to make the legal system more fair, more accessible and workable for the average person.

Or you could do what Marshfield Mass.-based Lawyer, John S. Keating does on his website every morning. He puts up the "Lawyer Joke of the Day."

"Just to show that some lawyers can laugh at themselves."