When I wore my bright blue, silk Hawaiian shirt to a festive corporate event in Key Largo, Fla., one of the new sales guys slipped me a note that said, “Do they make that shirt for men, too?” I have to admit it was a pretty funny comment–but one more appropriate for frat-house hombres than business colleagues who barely knew one another. I knew that as general counsel I had a challenge ahead of me: coaching “Mr. Wise-Guy” on the appropriate use of humor in the workplace.
The fact is, humor isn’t always funny. One offensive comment or risqu?(C) bit of humor can trigger a lawsuit or result in disciplinary action. For example, I once defended a sexual harassment suit spawned after an executive opened his Power Point presentation to a cartoon of a topless pin-up girl leaping out of a birthday cake. The males in attendance erupted in laughter and applause. The lone woman left the room and called a lawyer.
Humor illustrates Einstein’s theory of relativity; what’s funny to some may be appalling to others. Even legal department humor has its own special rules apart from the common office. Things we find funny would often leave business folks scratching their heads.
Even among legal departments there are differences in humor culture. Large departments tend to fragment into little humor cliques, each with their own set of inside jokes and comedic wavelength. On the other hand, small departments tend to collectively decide on a unified tone of what’s funny and acceptable–typically led by the top-ranking lawyer and the tone he or she sets.
Humor can play an especially important role in small legal departments because it can offset the higher stress, longer hours and monotony of autonomy that lean teams often have to suffer through. While humor is most fun when shared, solitary forays into humor can often be the safest and most effective means of breaking us out of the small-house “box” in which we work.
For example, I use the hilarity of silly suits or daily law-joke calendars to inject a quick hit of good feelings in an otherwise stressful day. (But ban all joke e-mails. They open the door to receiving inappropriate content that could become “Exhibit A” in a disciplinary action against you.)
Funny slip-ups in law also can serve to remind us not to take ourselves as lawyers so seriously (actual transcript):
Q:And when was the last time you saw Mr. Mirchell?
A: At his funeral.
Q: And did he make any -comments to you at that time?
Humor also enhances communication with business colleagues. I have a cartoon on my office window: “We forgot to run it by Legal. Now we have to run it by a judge.” That cartoon creates more heightened awareness of the need for early legal review than if I gave 10 lectures on the topic. That’s also why I sprinkle my “legal training” presentations with dollops of humor: goofy clip art, quippy quotes and fun “war stories.” Your audience will perk up and better remember the key lessons.
Good humor also is good diplomacy, able to deflate the wrath of an angry executive or lighten the combative air of negotiations. Humor makes us lawyers more personable and allows the business contingent to better relate to us as humans. Witty comebacks after a verbal assault also prove we can stay cool and positive under pressure and “think on our feet.”
Early in my career I was known as being “too serious.” I’ve learned that good humor is a critical skill, and as useful a tool in the lawyer’s arsenal as the proverbial “shield and sword.” But like any tool or weapon we must make sure to wield it with the respect, restraint, selectivity and skill it deserves.
Michael Baroni is general counsel and secretary for BSH Home Appliances.