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Lawyer jokes, which predate Shakespeare's era, are commonly told by those outside the profession as an expression of contempt, scorn and derision. They serve as a form of social commentary or satire reflecting the cultural perception of lawyers.
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers
A Fox may steal your hens, sir
A Whore your health and pence, sir
Your daughter rob your chest, sir
Your wife may steal your rest, sir
A thief your goods and plate
But this is all but picking
With rest, pence, chest and chicken
It ever was decreed, sir
If Lawyer's Hand is fee'd, sir
He steals your whole estate
In the modern era, many complaints about lawyers fall into five general categories:
- abuse of litigation in various ways, including using dilatory tactics and false evidence and making frivolous arguments to the courts
- preparation of false documentation, such as false deeds, contracts, or wills
- deceiving clients and other persons and misappropriating property
- procrastination in dealings with clients
- charging excessive fees
A recurring theme, historically and today, is that of exorbitant legal fees consuming the entire value of property at stake in an estate or a dispute:
How many lawyers does it take to change a light bulb?
How many can you afford?
It takes only one lawyer to change your lightbulb to his lightbulb.
The tale of the freshly-acquitted horse thief pleading that the judge issue an arrest warrant for "that dirty lawyer of mine" because "Your honour, you see, I didn't have the money to pay his fee, so he went and took the horse I stole" is often modernised to "he went and took the car I stole" with little or nothing else changed.
While telling an ethnic joke risks the label of racism, lawyers are perceived as a highly privileged class, seemingly accountable only to other lawyers; the Bar Association, the judges, even many of the politicians and legislators are their fellow lawyers who inevitably give them free rein. After all, one does not choose one's ethnicity but may choose whether to pursue a career in law.
Of those of all the professions, lawyer jokes are often the most blunt and to the point:
What is the difference between a catfish and a lawyer?
One is a scum-sucking, bottom-feeding scavenger. The other is a fish.
Why don't sharks eat lawyers?
Often told is the anecdote where a wealthy lawyer, solicited for a charitable donation, replies "Do you realise my mother is dying of a long-term illness and has medical bills several times her income? Did you know that my brother, a disabled veteran, is blind and in a wheelchair? Do you understand my sister is widowed and penniless with three dependent children? Well, since I don't give any money to them, why should I give any to you?"
Lawyer: "I have some good news for you"
Client: "What good news? You lost my case, I was convicted of a murder I did not commit and was sentenced to die in the electric chair."
Lawyer: "That's all true, but I got the voltage lowered."
Other anecdotes are based on logical fallacy, such as a lawyer defending a client on trial for killing his parents: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I appeal to your basic decency to take mercy on this poor, defenceless orphan!"
Occasionally, lawyers themselves use self-deprecating humour about lawyers or the legal profession in an attempt to add levity to otherwise bland topics. Lawyers giving a talk, especially to the profession, often employ jokes as icebreakers.
- Marc Galanter (8 August 2006). Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-21354-1.
- Daniel Kornstein (2005), Kill all the lawyers?: Shakespeare's legal appeal, Univ of Nebraska Press
- Marc Galanter (8 August 2006). Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-299-21354-1.
- Erin Barrett; Jack Mingo (Jan 31, 2002), Dracula was a Lawyer: Hundreds of Fascinating Facts from the World of Law, Conari Press, ISBN 9781573247184
- Marc Galanter (8 August 2006). Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-299-21354-1.
- Geoffrey C. Hazard, Jr., Legal Ethics: A Comparative Study (2004) 60.
- Marc Galanter (8 August 2006). Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-299-21354-1.
- Ken Alley (11 July 2000). The Encyclopedia of Wit, Humor, and Wisdom: The Big Book of Little Anecdotes. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-4620-9229-1.
- Robert W. Callaway (1 December 2004). Party Jokes. p. 12. ISBN 978-1-4685-1741-5.
- Studies in Applied Interpersonal Communication, Michael T. Motley (ed.) page 236 ISBN 978-1-4129-4216-4
- Peter Hay (1989), The book of legal anecdotes, Barnes & Noble, ISBN 9780880299763
- Laughter Ever After ... Ministry of Good Humor. Chalice Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-8272-2145-1.
- John Capps; Donald Capps (15 September 2009). You've Got To Be Kidding!: How Jokes Can Help You Think. John Wiley & Sons. p. 55. ISBN 978-1-4051-9665-9.
- Marc Galanter (8 August 2006). Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 105, 107. ISBN 978-0-299-21354-1.