On my reading list – Marc Galanter’s Lowering the Bar: Lawyer jokes and legal culture.

Marc Galanter

Marc Galanter

Galanter’s book is so good, it’s on my list to read a second time.  It helps explain everything that annoys us about attorneys.  I highly recommend Lowering the Bar.

I used to be a writing professor and taught while I went to law school.  One of my colleagues was incredibly supportive of all this activity, and she gave me the best books.   In addition to frequently expressing wishes that I would someday be able to “escape” from university life, she gave me a copy of Galanter’s enormously helpful book.  She presented it as a “scholarly examination of lawyer jokes.”  I inhaled it. The book was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time.

In addition to teaching, I was presiding over disputes between parents and school districts.  I was an administrative hearing officer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the attorneys appearing before me and other hearing officers routinely behaved very badly.  Somewhere along the way, the special education due process system degenerated.  Hearing officers were treated shabbily by the state and the system’s administrators.  Attorneys realized that bullying hearing officers would result in favorable rulings because the hearing officers could be intimidated.  Attorneys weren’t held accountable for bad conduct; they were, in fact, rewarded for it.  Some attorneys regarded bullying as an art form, engaging in antics they readily admitted they would never try to pull in federal court.

Lawyers were the bane of my existence, and their common attack was I couldn’t possibly understand what was going on because I had not, at that point, been to law school.  I enrolled in law school as a form of self-defense.

As a hearing officer, I spent considerable energy on self-defense.  We didn’t have bailiffs or security or even clerks. The people who hired us were more sympathetic to the attorneys appearing before us than they were interested in helping the hearing officers.  No one was going to rein in those jerks; I had only me and the force of my personality to protect myself.  It was a hostile environment.

I spent my years as a hearing officer watching attorneys very, very closely.  In addition to being “on guard” constantly, I simply didn’t understand these creatures that seemed devoid of humanitarian motives when I compared them to other folks I knew.  My background was educator and human service worker.  Where I came from, we lived and breathed ideas like promoting the greater good and respecting people’s dignity and so on.  The attorneys appearing before me were downright immature.  Or something.  I couldn’t even articulate what I found so objectionable.

Enter Marc Galanter’s book.  Galanter’s intention is to trace the history of lawyer jokes, but for me, Lowering the Bar was a catalogue of everything I had ever disliked about attorneys but was unable to satisfactorily articulate.   Chapters included:

Lies and Strategems: The Corruption of Discourse

The Lawyer as Economic Predator

Playmates of the Devil

Conflict: Lawyers as Fomenters of Strife

Betrayers of Trust

The Lawyer as Morally Deficient

Delicious!  I spent a lot of time with Galanter and learned precisely how to articulate why a particular attorney’s conduct on a certain day bothered me.  Once I was able to articulate my irritation, Galanter thoughtfully provided hundreds of lawyer jokes that made me laugh and put attorney shenanigans into their proper perspective.

Once you get deeply enough into the subject matter to be curious about Galanter’s scholarly journey, the book provides an interesting look at marginalized populations and recurring themes in humor.  Galanter documents the evolution of lawyer jokes – how they began, how they morphed into their current form, and what they say about the public’s perceptions of the legal profession in general.  He will tell a lawyer joke and then trace it back to its earlier forms.  Those earlier forms are usually humor-based attempts to cast aspersions on minority populations.  For a former human service worker, this was sobering stuff.  Here was an encyclopedia of anecdotes that furthered prejudice.  Did I want to take tools that were used to further marginalize disenfranchised populations and re-launch them in an attempt to marginalize a profession?

You bet.  Attorneys can be obnoxious.

I read Lowering the Bar in law school and haven’t cracked it open since, but I think re-reading it now would be helpful.  I’ve been through interesting times as an attorney in private civil practice, and it would be thought-provoking to read Galanter’s enormous catalogue of attorney jokes from my new perspective.  I want to find out if I react with the same glee to Lowering the Bar that I did years ago.  We’ll see.

In any event, Lowering the Bar is an excellent read for most anyone and provides food for thought on a lot of different levels.  I highly recommend it.


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