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Lawyer jokes aren’t just good for a laugh — they can tell us much about the state of the legal profession. In researching my new book, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture, I found that the preeminent subject of jokes set in large law firms is the tension between older partners and younger associates. Stories about how partners exploit associates — and how junior attorneys turn the tables on their senior colleagues — have been around for a long time. But the burgeoning growth of large firms has given them a new significance. Consider the following joke: A paralegal, an associate, and a partner of a prestigious New York law firm are walking through Central Park on their way to lunch when they find an antique oil lamp. They rub it and a genie comes out in a puff of smoke. The genie says, “I usually only grant three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.” “Me first! Me first!” says the paralegal. “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.” Poof. He’s gone. “Me next! Me next!” says the associate in astonishment. “I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of piña coladas, and the love of my life.” Poof. She’s gone. “You’re next,” the genie says to the partner. The partner says, “I want those two back in the library after lunch.” Here’s another example of a new twist on an old joke: A young associate was invited to a party at the home of an august senior partner at his firm. The associate wandered awestruck through the house, especially amazed at the original artworks by Picasso, Matisse, and others adorning the walls. As the associate stood gazing at one Picasso, the senior partner approached and put his arm around the associate’s shoulder. “Yes,” he said, “if you work long and hard, day in and day out, six, seven days a week, ten, 12 hours a day, I could buy another one!” In both of these stories, senior partners unhesitatingly quash the dreams of young associates, envisioning them in purely selfish terms. This is a theme that has found expression in lawyer jokes only in the last ten years or so, as associate retention and satisfaction have become issues at large firms. More often, the tables are turned on the senior attorney. Consider this expression of associate discontent: A man in a hot-air balloon realized he was lost, so he reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.” The woman replied, “You are in a hot-air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.” “You must be a second-year associate,” said the balloonist. “I am,” replied the woman. “How did you know?” “Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is, I am still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help so far.” The woman below responded, “You must be a partner!” “I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?” “Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made promises which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problems. The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.” This joke isn’t original, either. It began as a British story on the uselessness of parliamentary discourse. But it has proven wonderfully adaptive to the American law firm setting. In this incarnation it is transformed into a weapon in the war between junior and senior lawyers. Another story (converted from a joke about a speech writer) moves beyond critical rejoinder. A senior partner at a New York law firm is asked to speak at a major business conference. Accepting months in advance, he forgets about the engagement until, cleaning off his desk late one Friday evening, he notices the date scheduled in his calendar for the following Monday. With a big weekend at the beach house on tap, there’s no time to write a speech. Instead, he calls in a bright young associate. Partner: Smith, I have to address a conference on Monday night, and because of a client commitment all weekend, I can’t write the speech myself. You’ll have to do it for me. Have it on my desk by noon Monday. Associate: But, sir, my girlfriend and I have reservations at Partner: On my desk at noon. No ifs, ands, or buts. Comes Monday at 12, the speech is delivered, freshly typed, and bound in a neat plastic folder. The partner, on his way to a client meeting that will last until the evening, stuffs the speech in his briefcase without reading it. Later that night, standing before an audience of 500 business executives (including many clients and potential clients), he delivers the speech, which turns out to be a literary pearl filled with humorous anecdotes, wonderful insights, and bright observations on the law, business, and modern society. Near the end, it reaches a crescendo that has the audience on the edge of its seats. “Before I leave you tonight,” the partner reads, “I want to share with you my ultimate vision for using the law not only to resolve disputes, but to create a new chapter in the history of mankind. A chapter of unparalleled peace and prosperity worldwide. To accomplish this, I will suggest that — ” He turns the page, curious himself to read this remarkable plan, only to find, in capital letters, “Improvise, you son of a bitch!” All of these stories reflect the profound changes that law firms have undergone in recent years. In the past, the fortunate few who won the partnership tournament at a sizable firm acquired a kind of tenure. They could anticipate billing fewer hours with the passing years, and could expect to stay on at the same firm until a dignified, often gradual and partial, retirement. These expectations have been shattered not just by heightened competition among law firms, but by a major demographic transition. In the 1960s the annual number of law school graduates doubled, and continued rising for another 20 years. At first, the profession became much younger: The smaller numbers of older lawyers were joined by much larger cohorts of young attorneys, so the profession formed an age pyramid with a wide base of younger lawyers and a smaller peak of senior ones. Now, however, these baby boomers are in their fifties and sixties. The top of the age pyramid has widened, while its base has remained stable. The legal profession continues to grow, albeit more slowly. But all the growth is of older lawyers. This increases pressure on firms to thin their upper ranks to make room for ambitious younger people by mandating earlier retirement, or departnering those whose performance lags behind ever-rising standards. In short, the partnership tournament — once something that only had to be endured at the beginning of a law firm career — now lasts until the end. As a result, both associates and partners will experience more anxiety about their prospects and perquisites. We can expect increased tensions and rivalries — . Marc Galanter is the John and Rylla Bosshard professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School and Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This article originally appeared in The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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