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No laughing matter

“There is really no way to counter this perception. But, by maintaining a standard of professionalism, we can at least say we’re doing our part.”

Charles E. McCallum
Warner Norcross & Judd, L.L.P.
Grand Rapids, Mich.

As comedian Jerry Seinfeld might quip: What’s the deal with all the lawyer jokes?

Four panelists tackled the topic at a Wisconsin State Bar CLE seminar on Feb. 14, titled “Lawyer Jokes and the Public Perception of the Legal Profession.”

Attorneys Bruce F. Ehlke, of Hawks Quindel Ehlke & Perry, S.C.; Charles E. McCallum, of Warner Norcross & Judd, L.L.P. in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Marc Galanter, law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School; and Gregory J. Van Rybroek, director of the Men-dota Mental Health Institute, offered their perspectives on why lawyer jokes are not necessarily a laughing matter in today’s society.

Changing Humor

Lawyer jokes have circulated for centuries and for the most part, the jabs were gentle and occasionally slightly complimentary.

“A lawyer, a scientist and a minister are adrift at sea. With land in sight, the breeze subsides, forcing one of the men to swim to shore. The lawyer volunteers and agrees to pull the other two in from shore. As he begins to swim in, the minister notices a shark’s fin above the water headed toward the lawyer. At the last minute, the shark darts out of the lawyer’s path. The minister exclaims, ‘Thank God for the power of prayer.’ The scientist turns to him and says, ‘Prayer? That was just professional courtesy.’”

Aside from the art of deception often associated with sharks, the joke has underlying appreciation for an attorney’s tenacity and ability to perform risky feats for the betterment of others, said Galanter who wrote the 2005 book “Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and the Legal Culture.”

Galanter noted that early humor regarding lawyers played on their verbal discourse and economically advantageous nature.

“One hundred years ago, the core of jokes and cartoons were based on how lawyers twisted language around in ways which the average person didn’t understand, or how they would fleece a client in a humorous manner,” said Galanter.

Why in the last 25 years have tongues become more acidic when joking about lawyers?

Galanter partially attributed the nastier connotations to the legal explosion in the early 1980s. A rise in litigation, automated legal materials and the number of practicing lawyers soured the public, and especially the upper echelon of society, on the value of the legal culture.

“Suddenly attorneys were seen as destroying social assets, where as they had been viewed as pillars of the establishment in the past,” noted Galanter. “In the late ’80s lawyers became perceived as morally deficient and enemies of prosperity. Everyone was suing everyone and there was a dramatic increase in the legalization of society.”

All Joking Aside

Van Rybroek noted the transition has been aided by public perception of lawyers more as “suits” than human beings, a notion rooted in older stereotypes of greed and conceit.

“You can’t just be a lawyer,” said Van Rybroek. “There has to be more to you because it’s harder to attack a good person.”

Personalization is especially crucial as the majority of attorneys today are working with businesses and corporations, rather than individuals.

“I think there is more dependence on lawyers now than ever before, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” said Galanter. “We’re in this funny situation where on one hand people disparage lawyers and don’t want to depend on them, but on the other hand when they have some kind of problem, they want someone to solve it.”

As Van Rybroek noted, the natural inclination is to make light of what you don’t fully understand and in the case of attorneys’ value in society today, people are conflicted.

“People will look to externalize the problem in an effort to make themselves feel better,” said Van Rybroek.

The need for independence from attorneys may give way to impatience when working with them. Galanter explained that more is expected of attorneys today and failure to live up to those ideals can produce negative results.

“Back before World War II, most people didn’t think the law would do much for them,” said Galanter. “Generally speaking, the expectation that society will have solutions to people’s problems has gone up and lawyers are very much at the center of that.”

Media exposure has also skewed public view on lawyers and their contributions with the evolution of the Internet, 24-hour news networks, and the 15-second sound-bite.

Van Rybroek mentioned the McDonald’s “hot-coffee” case which gained national attention.

“Based on what you saw on television, the attorney representing the client appeared frivolous in his pursuits, but I read the case files and there was a lot of substance to the case,” said Van Rybroek.

No Solutions, Only Suggestions

The task of reversing centuries of cultural stereotypes, perceptions and opinions would be an exercise in futility, but lawyers can still have the last laugh.

McCallum put the responsibility on attorneys. Taking a genuine interest in clients, volunteering in the community and maintaining an active role in local, state and national bar associations are all ways to generate a healthy perception.

“This is a people business and if an attorney doesn’t believe that, he or she should be doing something else,” said McCallum.

Ehlke, who is a current member and former chairman of the Wisconsin State Bar Professionalism Committee, talked about a branding initiative the bar launched several years ago which promoted attorneys as “servants of the people.”

McCallum noted that in order for a measure like that to be successful, it takes actions, not just words.

“There is really no way to counter this perception. But, by maintaining a standard of professionalism, we can at least say, we’re doing our part,” said McCallum. “Ultimately, if we fail, the client loses and society as a whole loses.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached by email.

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