It’s still not funny

I can understand why a lot of people tell lawyer jokes. I will never understand why some lawyers do.

Jokes about people in positions of authority — political leaders, clergypeople, doctors and lawyers — trace their lineage back centuries. They’re grounded in people’s real need to exercise some sort of control over or resistance to the authority these figures represent. If you can’t topple el presidente, you can at least mock him, safely, behind closed doors. Lawyers have been powerful figures in society for as long as the profession has been around, so it’s natural that jokes have evolved as a way to cut lawyers down to size and bring them down to a more everyday level. That’s understandable and, from a social point of view, entirely healthy.

My problem with most lawyer jokes is that they’re abusive. Good humour turns on incongruity or unexpected developments; the humour in most lawyer jokes, such as it is, turns on the execrable nature of the lawyer. To the extent he speaks or acts in the joke, the lawyer is greedy, dishonest, stupid, destructively selfish, amoral and nihilistic. (And note that many lawyer jokes don’t even require the lawyer to be more than a silent caricature — he’s just the dead object in the road in front of which there are no skid marks.)

Jokes that hinge on people being lumped into a category aren’t jokes, but stereotypes — if the jokes were really funny, they wouldn’t have to lean on the crutch of prejudice. They dehumanize people, denying them the dignity to which they are fundamentally entitled and making the “joke” easier to swallow. The lawyer in the worst lawyer jokes is not a person to be humbled, but a thing to be abhorred. Yet that doesn’t keep people like the pending Republican nominee for president from telling a particularly unfunny and cruel lawyer joke to boost his own popularity.

I have no expectation that lawyer jokes will soon go the way of similar jokes about people of a particular race or nationality — it will acceptable be for awhile yet to rip lawyers in public. But when I hear a lawyer tell one of these jokes, or see a lawyer’s website contain these jokes and links to “treasuries” of others, my blood starts boiling.

When a lawyer tells a lawyer joke, he often defends it in one of two ways. First, he says he’s simply trying to put clients at ease. Well, when was the last time your doctor told you a joke about an arrogant, self-absorbed doctor whose patients are nothing but meat to him? Or that your auto mechanic told you the one about the crooked mechanic who rips off his customers and uses cheap counterfeit parts to fix their cars? Or that your accountant said that 10,000 accountants at the bottom of the ocean is a good start? And if any of these service providers did tell you these jokes, would you be feeling more at ease? Or would you have serious doubts about their professionalism and reliability?

The second justification is that the lawyer is showing he “doesn’t take himself too seriously” and “has a sense of humour.” This fundamentally misunderstands what true self-deprecating humour is: a deft performance in which a person mixes humility regarding her own position with a confidence and self-assuredness that she can afford to sacrifice a small portion of her standing.

But when a lawyer tells a lawyer joke, he’s not being self-deprecating — he’s being deprecating of thousands upon thousands of other people who joined the same profession he did. Self-deprecating humour has exactly one target — yourself. When you broaden the scope to other people, the charm and wit quickly devolve into cheap-shot artistry, with a taste of self-loathing for good measure. That’s not humour, that’s pathology.

There’s more to this than sermonizing. When lawyers tell cruel jokes about the profession that encourage others to lose respect for legal practitioners, it’s bad for business and it’s bad for lawyers’ sense of purpose. On the first point, it’s insanely bad marketing — when your profession is already losing ground to competitors outside your field and suffers from a terrible public image, why in the world would you contribute to clients’ sense that lawyers really are nasty people with whom they don’t want to be associated? And when so many lawyers express such a deep sense of dissatisfaction and meaninglessness in their work lives, how can the retelling of lawyer jokes do anything but further undermine lawyers’ social standing and undercut the profession’s already shaky morale? Whose side are we on again?

You know, I addressed this subject in one of the first editorials I wrote for National back in 1999. The letters in response can be summed up by the opening line of the first one: “Lighten up.” I’ve never found that a convincing comeback to an allegation of confusing humour for mean-spiritedness, but I’m evidently not in the majority on this point.

But has the mood changed among lawyers since then? Does this position find more support now than it did eight-plus years ago? Or are lawyers still okay with bemoaning their low social standing and public respect while telling jokes that compare themselves to sharks and dead skunks?