As a law student at UC Hastings in the late 1970s, I wrote a column called Ask Mac for the school newspaper. It featured advice that often poked fun at lawyers and law students. I still remember a question from a first-year student who wanted to know how he could get enough exercise when he had to spend all his time studying. The answer: Take law school gym - you chase an ambulance around a track. It seemed funny to me then, and even novel.
Of course, that was before the 1980s arrived, and with them an onslaught of nasty jokes stereotyping lawyers. Any lawyer out there will probably remember what I'm talking about - "skid marks," "professional courtesy," "not enough cement." The phenomenon may have peaked in 1993, with audiences laughing out loud when a lawyer was eaten by a dinosaur in Jurassic Park
, or when a rodeo cowboy lassoed an attorney in a popular Miller Lite TV commercial.
During this time, I maintained a professional interest in these jokes, but not because I stayed in the legal field. After practicing what I call "who cares" law for a couple of years, I grew tired of it. I was at a big downtown San Francisco firm representing airlines in crushed-cargo cases. Someone shipped something, and it got crushed. So someone had to pay - either the airline or its insurance carrier. When I explained my practice to friends, they'd say, "Who cares?" They were right.
Prior to law school, I'd studied communications for six years: First, I spent four years at SUNY Buffalo in my native state of New York earning my bachelor's, and then I moved to California and got a master's in communications at USC before going to law school. Many of my USC classmates had become communications consultants, and when I finally left the law to start my own consultancy, I decided to specialize in humor.
The job entails writing and speaking about how managers, professionals, and executives can use humor as a presentation tool. I advise people on how to gain attention and create rapport with simple, lightly humorous techniques. An example: Pick a word or phrase out of your presentation and make up a funny definition. "I became managing partner of this firm because of my foresight. You know, foresight ... as in, knowing when to shut your mouth before someone suggests it."
I've often been asked why I went through the hard work of getting a law degree and passing the bar exam only to become a humor consultant. I've never had a great answer, but last year I was able to put both passions to work simultaneously when the American Bar Association asked me to write a quote book for lawyers. In my online research I discovered a trend: Many personal and professional groups have websites with retorts to annoying questions or remarks. You've probably seen the ubiquitous "Women's Comebacks to Men's Pickup Lines." ("What would it take to get you to leave here with me?" "A fire.") That one just scratches the surface. There are retort Web pages for married couples without children, singles, adoptive parents, tall people, overweight people, magicians, belly dancers, you name it. Lawyers, strangely enough, do not have such a resource.
So I took the initiative to include a section in my book on comebacks for lawyer jokes. (It was also a way for me to make amends for being one of the perpetrators of lawyer jokes early on!) I wrote some of the comebacks, and I solicited a few from funny lawyer friends. Here's a sample: "What's the difference between a lawyer and a mosquito?" The response the joker means to set up: "One is a blood-sucking parasite, the other is an insect." But you can beat him to the punch line by quoting former lawyer and comedy writer Bob Mills: "A lawyer has never given anyone malaria."
Will my comebacks make lawyer jokes disappear? Probably not. But they do show that a law degree really can be used for something besides practicing law, and that just as lawyers serve a meaningful purpose, so do humor consultants.
Malcolm Kushner is the author of
The Ultimate Lawyer Quote Book: Words of Wisdom and Humor, now available from the American Bar Association.