THE BLOG
02/05/2014 04:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

A New Approach to Lawyer Jokes

Lawyer jokes often portray attorneys as rich, greedy and pompous. And during the past few decades these jokes have perpetuated this negative stereotype around the world. It got so bad in the 1990s that a California bar association leader begged lawyers to stop spreading the jokes. Unfortunately, it didn't work. Last year in Canada, the Ontario bar association began a campaign to change the image of lawyers - and end the jokes. That probably won't work either.

As a former attorney, I'm familiar with the problem. You're at a party. You mention you're a lawyer. And the jokes start coming fast and furious: snakes, professional courtesy, skid marks, death. If you object, you have no sense of humor. If you smile and take it -- well no one, especially lawyers, wants to smile and take it.

So what's the solution?

Many years ago, one state bar president suggested that lawyers should launch a preemptive attack by telling doctor jokes. (My favorite: What do you call a surgeon who wears a suit? The defendant.) That didn't work either. Note to future bar presidents: telling accountant jokes won't work any better.

The solution lies not in attacking but defending. Sure, there's the widely-held belief that the best defense is a good offense. But is it really? Whatever merits this folk wisdom may possess, it doesn't work for dealing with lawyer jokes in a social situation.

Under the best defense is a good offense doctrine, you must initiate the attack. While this might be a good strategy for lawyers doing litigation, being the aggressor in a social conversation is not. Why? Let's say you're a lawyer at a party. Before anyone can tell a lawyer joke, you tell a joke about their profession. What's the reaction? You'll be viewed as a jerk and re-enforce the stereotype that lawyers are mean, aggressive and full of themselves.

The key to success is how you respond to the joke. Even an audience unsympathetic to lawyers will recognize that someone else attacked first. So if you zing a clever comeback, the audience will have some motivation to be on your side. The real problem is how do you instantly come up with a witty retort that shuts down the person telling lawyer jokes?

Fortunately, my new book, just published by the American Bar Association, addresses this issue. The Ultimate Lawyer Quote Book includes comebacks for some of the most annoying jokes commonly directed at attorneys. For example, "What's the difference between a lawyer and a mosquito?" The jerk who asked that question wants to answer "One is a blood-sucking parasite, the other is an insect." But before he can, you can quote Bob Mills: "A lawyer has never given anyone malaria." People are now laughing with you and at the jerk who tried to tell a lawyer joke. And that's the entire point of the book -- to give lawyers smart, funny things to say when they need them.

Here's another example. Some wise guy asks "What's the difference between a dead snake in the road and a dead lawyer in the road?" He wants to say "Skid marks." But before he can, someone quotes Richard Herzfeld: "No one makes boots out of lawyers."
You get the idea. Want some more? Hey, get the book.