By Fiona K. Steer, Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP
Member of the 10th Judicial District Professionalism Committee
“Never laugh at a lawyer joke.” Words of a law school dean on the first day of 1L orientation. He asked, “Who here has heard a lawyer joke?” Half the room mumbled a laugh, everyone in the room raised their hand. With a blank face he silenced the room, repeating, “NEVER laugh at a lawyer joke.”
This is where he was coming from. When a lawyer laughs at a lawyer joke made in bad taste, that lawyer is belittling the hard work put in during law school that so many college peers were unwilling to take on. He or she is belittling what it meant to spend Thanksgiving and Fourth of July working on a brief or a real estate closing. He or she is depreciating the ethical, moral and professional challenges that we take seriously and mull over every single day we show up to work.
But at least as importantly, we have to consider: What does a lawyer laughing at an unseemly lawyer joke say to the non-lawyers standing close by? As trained advocates, we all know that human beings are susceptible to influence.
The Preamble to North Carolina’s Rules of Professional Conduct, states:
. . . [A] lawyer should further the public's understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.
Lawyers play a vital role in the preservation of society. The fulfillment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers of their relationship to our legal system. . .
Preamble: A Lawyer's Responsibilities.
If we, as North Carolina lawyers, are charged with the responsibility of furthering the public’s understanding and confidence in the legal system, with the vital role of the preservation of society, surely we are charged with the responsibility of refraining from encouraging damaging stereotypes regarding lawyers and their role in the system.
Think of it from the perspective of the non-lawyer: Surely a lawyer knows more about lawyers’ goings-on than non-lawyers know. And if a lawyer finds humor in a joke implying, say, all lawyers are liars, then there must be some truth to it, right? We can’t blame the non-lawyer – that thought process is logical. I encourage you, the next time you are confronted with a tasteless lawyer joke at a neighborhood cocktail party, embrace the awkward moment. Instead of shrugging off the joke and managing a smirk, just don’t do it – don’t laugh at the lawyer joke! If we take our professional responsibilities seriously, we can hope society will follow. “Never laugh at a lawyer joke.”
*Any opinion or views expressed in blogs posted on this site are those of the identified author and not the Committee as a whole.