What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Monday, August 23, 2010

L is for Lawyer

Q: What do you do if you’re in the jungle, and you’re attacked by a lion, a hippopotamus and a lawyer, and you’ve only got two bullets in your rifle?

A: Shoot the lawyer twice.


Ahhh, nobody likes lawyers. Oh, we may like individual lawyers (especially if we happen to be, ahem, married to one). But as a class, I think they’re about as maligned as any group in the world.

For one thing, lawyers are perceived as being rich and powerful. They have high status. And, as discussed in previous blog entries, high-status people are ripe for being taken down a peg. The epitome of slapstick may still be a rich man getting a pie in the face.

(Hey, I wonder if throwing pies is simply sublimating the urge to hurl – um, other stuff -- the way our primate relatives do? And why am I wasting thoughts like that in a parenthetical remark when I could stretch it into an entire column?)


A billionaire needs to hire a personal assistant. His search team eventually narrows the applicants down to three choices: a mathematician, an economist and a lawyer. The billionaire decides to conduct the final interview himself. He invites the mathematician into his office and asks:

“How much is two plus two?”

The mathematician whips out his calculator, punches numbers furiously for a good forty-five seconds and announces triumphantly: “Four!”

The billionaire kicks out the mathematician and calls in the economist. He asks her:

“How much is two plus two?”

The economist whips out a book of charts and statistical tables, looks in the index, flips to the proper page and proclaims, “according to our latest surveys, somewhere between three and five!”

The billionaire kicks her out and calls in the lawyer. He asks him:

“How much is two plus two?”

The lawyer closes the office door. He pulls the shades. He takes the phone off the hook and turns up a radio very loudly. He tiptoes up to the billionaire and whispers in his ear:

“How much do you want it to be?”

So there’s the whole position of power thing about lawyers. There’s this, too. The work that they do seems ever more necessary in the 21st century, and the work that they do is ever more opaque to the non-attorney.

Lawyers are taught to look for loopholes. That’s the way they work. It is not enough for something a document to appear to say something—the document has to say something exactly, precisely, and without any possibility of misinterpretation.

(This is why the disclaimers at the bottom of your TV screen are 10 paragraphs long. Every sentence is the result of a lawsuit claiming that something was unclear.)

Lawyers therefore become skilled in what’s called arguing in the alternative—something that makes perfect sense to attorneys, but can cause other people’s head to explode. Because lawyers want to cover every possible permutation, they can write sentences like the following and not crack a smile: “I never borrowed that, it was broken when I got it, and I returned it in perfect working condition.”

No wonder other people can’t stand them!
A doctor, a civil engineer and a lawyer are traveling on vacation when their car breaks down. They are forced to spend the night at a small farm. The farmer informs them that, while there is room for two of the travelers, the third will have to stay in the barn with the pigs and cows. And the barn, the farmer warns, hasn’t been cleaned in quite some time.

The doctor says, “Listen, I’m a doctor. I’m used to blood and excrement, and just about anything unpleasant that the body can produce. I’ll stay in the barn.” So the doctor goes out to the barn.

About two hours later, there’s a knock on the farm door. There’s the doctor, standing there looking terribly unhappy. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I just can’t stay out there with all those pigs and cows.”

The civil engineer says, “Heck, I build sewers for a living. There isn’t a smell I haven’t dealt with. I’ll stay in the barn.” So the civil engineer goes out to the barn.

About an hour later, there’s a knock on the farm door. There’s the civil engineer standing there, looking terribly unhappy. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but I just can’t stay out there with all those pigs and cows.”

The lawyer says, “Well, you guys have given it a shot, I suppose it’s my turn. I’ll stay in the barn.” So the lawyer goes out to the barn.

About a half hour later, there’s a knock on the farm door. There’s a bunch of pigs and cows standing there.

When my wife the attorney was younger, she made it a practice to keep her passport in her office. Because, hey, you never know when you might have to make a business trip in a hurry—and the attorney with the passport gets to make the trip to some exotic locale.

Sure enough, when she was still quite a fledging attorney, there arose a need for someone to fly to Zurich, Switzerland to witness a transaction. My wife, happily waving her passport, volunteered for the job, and before you can you can say “Transatlantic Flight” was winging her way to the land of cuckoo clocks.

Well, my wife arrived in Zurich, checked into a hotel, and made her way to the office building where she signed off on the multimillion dollar transaction she’d helped negotiate. The whole deal took about 18 hours, including the time my wife spent buying every bar of chocolate within a 5 mile radius to fulfill the orders of her colleagues in the office and her friends and family at home.

Exhausted, my wife booked a flight back to New York the day after she arrived. She soon found herself on the receiving end of a suspicious look from a Swiss Customs Officer.

Here was a young woman—looking much younger than the 25 years on her passport—with dark circles under her eyes and vague expression. Not only that, but her only suitcase was packed with what appeared to be dozens of bars of chocolate.

“I see you’ve only been in Switzerland for a single day,” said the suspicious guard. “What brought you here?”

“Business,” my wife replied shortly.

“Business, eh?” said the Customs Official. “What is your business?”

“I’m a lawyer.”

“A lawyer?” said the guard, a note of disbelief in his voice. “Why didn’t the shark eat the lawyer?”

“Professional courtesy!” snapped my wife.

The guard laughed. “I guess you are a lawyer at that!” and waved her through.


  1. I used to carry my passport around in those days too, in vague hopes of exotic destinations. But I never actually got a spur-of-the-moment trip out of it, let alone an absolutely classic story. (And one that I'm fully expecting to see anonymously (and no doubt inaccurately) circulating on the internet one of these days.)

    Hmmm, so the ads for lawyers only show up when I make a comment? Before that, it was gorilla safaris (speaking of exotic destinations, where coworkers half my age somehow manage to go on their vacations), and "elephant dung paper." Yes, I clicked on both. I've already got all the lawyers I need.

  2. Oh, and now there's an ad for ridiculously high-heeled shoes, the kind your wife wouldn't be caught dead wearing. (At least one of the lawyers in the case I was on the jury for last year wore pretty high ones, and she was at least half a foot taller than her adversary to begin with. That wasn't the *only* reason she won the case, but it didn't hurt.)

    Word verification: "incofi" -- where to put your cream.

  3. So, when a lawyer tells that last joke who do the pigs and cows reject? (The viola player?)

    Word verification: "mucim" - a new drug to remove irritating nostril secretions. May cause brain injury or death (no, not really. Our lawyer forced us to put that in).

  4. To show that some prospective lawyers can tell a joke: years ago a Cornell law school class was selling "2 Henry VI. Act IV. ii" mugs. I bought two and one is now in the Lazar glassware cabinet.

    Word verification: "mandiast" - one unnaturally obsessed with a Barry Manilow song.

  5. Yes, but as Jerry's favorite lawyer is quick to point out, that line is uttered by one of the bad guys.

    Word verification: "subeneco" -- the Navy's chief contractor on power plants for underwater vessels.

  6. I presume the next one will be "M is for Moose". It's a depressing rainy day here and I really need to hear some good moose jokes. Or even some bad moose jokes.

    Word verification: "vanto": "organizational performance business consultants design and implement organizational initiatives to produce unprecedented results" (or, in other words, consulting firm that does nothing)