Georgia Bar Journal, Vol. 4 No. 3; ©State Bar of Georgia, 1998-2010. Used by permission, all rights reserved.
We have all been there. It’s a holiday party at a friend’s house. The atmosphere is festive, the food and drink are plentiful and we are enjoying being away from the care and concerns of practicing law.
Then it happens. A well-meaning friend feels compelled to share the latest lawyer joke. Frantically looking around the room, we try to find a quick way out. We feel our face beginning to burn as we sense every eye in the room on us. Praying that this will be that rare animal – a truly funny lawyer joke – we fix an awkward grin on our faces and steel ourselves for the punch line.
The disgusting joke is finally over and everyone laughs, waiting for our reaction. Too embarrassed to express our true feelings, we mumble something unintelligible and either leave the room or change the subject. For the rest of the evening we feel like a social outcast.
For years I endured that scenario at a variety of social gatherings. It bothered me so much that I eventually began avoiding social occasions as on means of coping with the problem. However, there was no escape. The jokes didn’t go away. They simply became more offensive and began to include all aspects of the legal system as a subject of ridicule.
When it reached the point that politicians – who historically were held in such low regard that they could not throw stones at lawyers – began to use lawyers and the legal system to advance their own political agenda, I decided I would no longer ignore what was going on.
As the attacks on lawyers and our system of justice increased in intensity, I began to respond more aggressively. My early responses largely took place in airports and on airplanes. When polite chatter about jobs resulted in the inevitable lawyer joke or derogatory comment, I no longer attempted to win approval by laughing politely or nodding in approval. I told the person that I was offended by the comment and, if it was based on misinformation, why I viewed the attack as unfair. The first step in fighting back was taken and I had survived!
The next significant step in the process took place when I was backstage during a production of my community theater. One member of the cast felt compelled to entertain me with a lawyer joke, and I responded with telling him that he should go ahead and tell some cruel ethnic jokes or jokes to embarrass people who are physically challenged. After all, I told him, if you want to be a bigot, why stop with lawyers?
Other members of the cast who had been listening drifted away in the awkward silence. However, during the next few performances several cast members told me privately that they were glad that I stood up for my profession.
As President of the State Bar, I now have a “bully pulpit” from which I can defend lawyers and our system of justice. Speaking to civic clubs, I receive positive and thoughtful responses from most of the members. When forced to think about the role that lawyers and our system of justice play in our country’s freedom, most fair-minded people realize we have been attacked unfairly.
A strong response to lawyer bashing is not required because we are overly sensitive or lack a sense of humor. We must speak out because the attacks on our profession threaten the very foundation of our legal system – our independence. If lawyers can be intimidated from representing unpopular causes and people, how will their voices be heard? Many of our majority viewpoints today were in yesterday’s minority. In order for the system to work, lawyers on both sides of an issue must have the freedom to be effective advocates and judges must have the independence to reach fair decisions.
The best way to attack intolerance and ignorance is with facts and the truth. Your State Bar is working diligently on a program to restore public confidence in lawyers and the legal system by doing just that. You will be haring more about this Foundations of Freedom program in another issue of the Bar Journal. However, the Foundation of Freedom program will not work unless our entire membership is motivated and willing to respond to unfair attacks on our profession.
You can start right now. When you see an unfair attack in a publication, respond in writing, sign your name and send me a copy. Don’t be too embarrassed to let your friends and clients know you respect your profession and find coarse lawyer jokes insulting. Tell your friends in public office that unfounded attacks on our system of justice pose a real danger to the entire political process.
Are you tired of the jokes? Do you want to go to holiday parties and other events with your head held high? Then quit standing around waiting for some other lawyer or some organization to defend you.
We all worked hard to become lawyers. Let’s show a little pride in what we have accomplished.