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The very idea of “legal humor” no doubt strikes most people as an oxymoron. There is little about the law that produces belly laughs, and even less, one might posit, about law professors. So a hilarious book written by tweedy occupants of the legal ivory tower should be a metaphysical impossibility. And yet, miracles do happen. Amicus Humoriae: An Anthology of Legal Humor, compiled by Robert M. Jarvis, Thomas E. Baker and Andrew J. McClurg (Carolina Academic Press), is a very funny romp through legal life. It is a collection of 25 (intentionally) humorous essays and parodies, penned mostly by law professors and by a few students over the last 40 or so years, previously appearing in various periodicals. The book includes a list of still more legal knee-slappers. What humorous observations could possibly issue forth from bodies accustomed to making sonorous pronouncements on the rule against perpetuities and unconstitutional mud flaps? Given the solid grounds for incredulity here, I offer some examples. Consider “Needleman on Mortgages,” by William L. Prosser-a tour through every law student’s vision of hell. It seems that a new book by Sol H. Needleman, a heretofore unknown but brilliant scholar, has mysteriously been listed in a law school’s library catalog. The treatise promises to illuminate the impenetrable distinction in California law between mortgages and deeds of trust, a subject that remains unfathomable no matter how much a student cribs, crams or entreats harried law professors. Alas, the book is signed out; no one knows to whom. A desperate search ensues. Class leaders assemble their schoolmates, for it is automatically assumed, in the timeless Darwinian pecking order of law schools, that some scoundrel is hoarding the book. A plea to return it, for the sake of humanity, is made, but to no avail. A member of the faculty, who was working on just such a textbook-from which he doubtless expected to make a fortune-goes into a paroxysm of panic trying to figure out who the devil this Needleman fellow is. Finally, the school’s ferocious dean gets into the act, and, in leaving no stone unturned in the search for the book, uncovers the sophomoric stunt (which I won’t reveal here) that started all the hysteria in the first place. First published in 1957, Prosser’s essay demonstrates that the angst-ridden law school experience has changed not a wit in 40 years. Can we laugh at ourselves? The book invites further trips down memory lane-but with a twist. We all recall the agony of taking exams. But few outside of academia understand the hair-pulling state of torment into which we propelled our professors with those long-ago blue-books, filled with our blathering, half-witted attempts to sound like lawyers in response to questions that so terrified us then, but were no doubt quite straightforward. C. Steven Bradford showed the reader how typical categories of law student test-takers-including those he dubbed the waffler, the historian, the outliner, the repeater, the scholar and the avoider-would answer a law school exam that simply called for the student to write the opening line of the Gettysburg Address. Of course, none of his hypothetical students simply recites Lincoln’s elegant words, as requested. Instead each, in his own way, mangles it, forgets it, fakes it, footnotes it, elaborates, exaggerates, tortures and protracts it to the point where one wonders how professors can ever grade exams without having to spend time afterward in a padded cell. “I can’t stand to think about such exam answers for very long-I wake up in the middle of the night screaming,” Bradford confessed. We may shake our heads in mock sympathy, confident that none of us ever wrote such irritating blue-book fodder, but in our heart of hearts, we all know that we did-and then some. There is also a jewel of a parody written by Maurice Kelman that presented the “recently discovered” memorandum written in the late 18th century by one Abigail Sedgewick-Pinksy-thought to be America’s first legal writing instructor-critiquing whether the law students James Madison and Gouverneur Morris should be given independent study credit for drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. She gives them a vociferous thumbs-down on the grounds of overuse of euphemisms and legalisms, a “fatuous” preamble and a generally exasperating failure to articulate precisely what the hell the Framers really meant. In the end, though, what makes this book sing is not the law-it is lawyers: It’s our bluster, arrogance, insecurity, pomposity, and tendency toward anal-retentive attention to detail, that lend themselves to good-humored self-deprecation and some very human fun. Carla T. Main edits the opinion pages of The National Law Journal. She can be reached at [email protected].

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