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Lawyer jokes have been told, no doubt, since the first lawyer accepted his first retainer. One reason-let’s admit it up front-is that some lawyers have done some things (some lawyers? some things?) worthy of ridicule, or condemnation, or both. Hence, one of my personal favorites: As your frail, elderly client toddles out of your office, you happily run your fingers over the crisp, new, hundred-dollar bill with which she has paid you. To your surprise, you find that she has mistakenly given you not one, but two, hundred-dollar bills. You instantly realize that you face a serious ethical dilemma: Should you tell your partner? Another reason for the persistent popularity of lawyer jokes is that attorneys are natural lightning rods for the anger and frustration inherent in our expensive, adversarial legal system: Defendant: “Justice! I demand justice!” Judge: “Silence! Counsel, please remind your client that he is in a court of law!” To our credit, we lawyers generally have pretty thick skins, and we enjoy an occasional laugh at our own expense: Two lawyers are preparing for a tough oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Well,” says one, “at least we know that justice is on our side.” “Yeah,” the other glumly replies, “but I’d rather have the chief justice.” For all of these reasons, collections of lawyer jokes have been published for years, with titles that are catchy, like Lawyers and Other Reptiles, and not-so-catchy, such as The Lawyer Joke Book. I admit to having consulted both collections when confronted with the occasional specter of an after-dinner speech or a particularly dull class presentation. Now, even law professors are getting into the act. Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes & Legal Culture (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005) from which the foregoing samples are adapted, is the brainchild of Marc Galanter, emeritus professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lowering the Bar is, its title suggests, more than just another gag compendium; it is a serious, scholarly treatment of the subject. In it, Galanter not only collects and categorizes, he also annotates and analyzes. Indeed, there is much more analysis than humor in the book, which begins with a 25-page introduction tracing the history and cultural significance of lawyer jokes in painstaking detail. After this extensive discussion, Galanter notes that “jokes do tap a vein of genuine shared sentiment, even though some themes that are important in other manifestations of public opinion may be poorly represented in the joke corpus.” Galanter then divides his stock of some 300 jokes into 10 categories, including, “The Lawyer as Economic Predator” and “The Lawyer as Morally Deficient,” and divides them again into roughly 50 subcategories, including several with provocative labels such as, “Into the Slime” and “The Anal Connection.” I’ll leave that last one to your imagination. American exceptionalism The book ends with a chapter entitled, “Only in America?” in which Galanter contrasts the great variety and negativity of American lawyer jokes with the relative dearth and blandness of lawyer jokes elsewhere. He attributes this difference largely to the extraordinarily prominent role played by law and lawyers in modern American society, and concludes that “the swollen body of jokes about lawyers is another form of American exceptionalism, testimony to our vaunting expectations of law and our anxiety that they will be disappointed.” While many readers will find Galanter’s analysis enlightening, others, especially those looking only for a few chuckles, may find his academic prose, including repeated references to “the joke corpus,” a mite off-putting. But all books about humor, as opposed to humorous books, suffer from the tendency to make promises they can’t keep. I am reminded of a short story in which a group of psychologists have finally discovered the elusive “secret” of humor. But, strangely, they try to hide their discovery: It turns out that anyone who learns the secret of humor is doomed never to laugh again. Galanter doesn’t quite kill the joy, but he sometimes assaults and batters it. Nonetheless, as a work of scholarship, as a reference book and, yes, as a source for the occasional after-dinner anecdote, Lowering the Bar is well worth the investment of both money and time. Stewart Harris is the associate dean for academic affairs at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., where he teaches civil procedure and constitutional law and occasionally tells lawyer jokes during class.

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