February 6, 2008
Occupational Hazard: Making Sense Out of Stupid Courtroom Questions
Posted by Alan Childress
I like lawyer jokes as much as the next guy, as long as the next guy telling them is not John McCain. With all the great lawyer jokes on the internet (including this site, and posts here and here on our blog), he has to pick the old lawyer:catfish analogy? And tell it with the most wooden timing possible? I much preferred his really funny and inappropriate Alzheimer's joke in 1999 (that gave him authenticity, said The Guardian), one that he was later forced to apologize for: the great thing about it is that you get to hide your own Easter eggs. I am not sure I want to live in a country where lawyering is more darkly ironic than dementia.
But lawyer jokes are so popular because there is no real union to stand up to them. It is not like we can tell stupid client jokes and people will laugh, though in fact we all have lots of stupid clients and witnesses who could be the subject of much funpoking. There is no large audience for that, especially if the general public identifies with clients and witnesses and thinks they are not so stupid.
Which is why I was not as amused as everyone else at the Super Bowl party when one of my brothers whipped out something he printed off the internet, full of "stupid lawyer questions" heard in courtroom situations. His print-out seemed to be much the same as this site I found later. I was surprised at the level of reaction that everyone else was showing. They thought these were really funny. And anytime a new person would join the party, Dad would read the same ones over again, then the new guy would really laugh too. Confounding.
I should have just laughed along, but instead I fell victim to an occupational hazard: the need to explain how several of the questions the lawyers had asked, though inartfully framed, were necessary to establish for the record -- out of the witness's mouth and not just by assumption or lawyer argument -- a fact that is an essential element of a claim or defense (like a death for a homicide case). OK, I admit I actually said "or affirmative defense" to sound more legalistic and mystifying, hoping my credibility would stop the hilarity in its tracks. It did not, but it did redirect the hilarity. The net result is that the object of their derision was no longer those pitiable (and, I insist, careful and detail-driven) lawyers quoted in the print-out. Instead now I was the object of universal group ridicule.
Last fall, two of the professional librarians at our school came to a faculty meeting and delivered their report on a candidate for the head librarian's position. Every time they spoke, the rest of the faculty had to ask them to speak up. Even after, they still spoke in such hushed tones that few of us could hear them. Like calling a golf match, I guess: that is the occupational hazard of librarians.
So if you are a lawyer, learn my lesson and resist the occupational hazard of trying to justify to laypersons the meaning of legal rules and actors. Just agree that the law is an ass, and you will be fine. If you are, worse, a law professor, here are my lightbulb jokes for this profession, which will only make sense to the academic types.
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