Picturing Justice, The On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

John Denvir
John Denvir





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.






My take

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."

This 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 denvirj@usfca.edu. You might also want to pick up a copy of Professor Galanter's fine book.

Posted November 23, 2005

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