Don’t laugh at Dutch lawyers (TLS Book Review)

E. S. Turner
21 September 2005

Lawyer jokes and legal culture
Marc Galanter
430pp. | University of Wisconsin Press.

A favourite American riddle runs: “What do you call six hundred lawyers at the bottom of the sea?”. The answer is “A good start”. The riddle itself makes a good start to an inquest on lawyer-bashing, but it is not “the single most prevalent of all current lawyer jokes” in America. That is the one which says that research laboratories are using lawyers instead of rats, the three main reasons being that lawyers are more plentiful, that lab assistants don’t get attached to them, and that there are some things a rat will not do. Other ingeniously wounding reasons have been added. According to Marc Galanter, ten variations appeared in Lame Duck’s 1998 Lawyer Joke-a-Day Calendar; and for the benefit of doubters, or fellow researchers, with access to old unused tear-off calendars, he lists the actual dates on which these jettisonable squibs appeared.

Lowering the Bar, which contains 150 pages of equally scrupulous joke annotations and sourcings, is almost wholly about American lawyers, among whom Galanter enjoys professorial rank. He is concerned that “the great surge of lawyer joking” which began in the 1980s has increasingly displayed “mean-
spirited scorn and aggression”, as compared with the “gentle mockery” of earlier times. In 1988, the California bar ran a workshop, at its annual meeting, on “Why Are They Laughing?”. Radio talk shows vied with each other in lawyer insults; publishers rushed out titles like First, Kill All the Lawyers, The Lawyers from Hell Joke Book and Truly Tasteless Lawyer Jokes; and the internet threw itself open to freelance scurrilities. In Galanter’s words, the American public had chosen lawyers as a screen on which to project their animosities. But why? That is the major question to which, fortified by the Anonymous Fund for the Humanities of Wisconsin-Madison University, he has devoted years of inquiry.

It was no surprise that the expansion of prejudice coincided with the huge increases in lawyer numbers over recent decades. Galanter accuses the British media, including the BBC, of parroting a Daniel Quayle misestimate suggesting that America has three-quarters of the world’s lawyers, whereas the correct figure is “probably somewhere in the range of one quarter”; which surely still smacks of exorbitancy. The reason for the rise in numbers Galanter attributes to “the increasing legalization of society” expressed in

“a decentralized legal regime in which any activity is subject to multiple bodies of regulation . . . where decision makers produce not definitive and immutable rulings but contingent temporary resolutions that are open to further challenge; where outcomes are subject to contestation in multiple forums by an expanding legion of organised and persistent players . . . .”