The late, great comedian Phil Hartman played a character named Keyrock, the Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer, in “Saturday Night Live” sketches in the early 1990s. Hartman wore a wig and makeup to look like a caveman, but he wore a fancy suit and a gold watch, and he knew his way around a modern courtroom. More important to the joke, he knew how to talk to juries.
Keyrock was slick — credit Hartman’s delivery here — and he played up his unique background to make his points. I’m paraphrasing here, but it usually went something like this: “I’m just a caveman. I fell into some ice and your scientists thawed me out. I don’t know much about your world, but I do know that my client deserves $2 million.” The jury wouldn’t even need to deliberate. Keyrock always won. It was comic genius.
The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” sketches. It’s also one of a multitude of lawyer jokes. I love laughing at a well-crafted joke, even if it is about lawyers. There are a lot of them — lawyer jokes, that is — and many of them are mean, tasteless and offensive. Why are there so many lawyer jokes?
Jokes often spring from a bit of truth. (Have you heard this one? Q: How many lawyer jokes are there? A: Only three; the rest are true stories.) Unfortunately, the public perception of lawyers is frequently poor. Many view lawyers as expensive obstacles to our legal system. Lawyers have been portrayed in movies and on TV as slick and heartless, scheming and lying to manipulate others, or worse. Remember the movie “The Devil’s Advocate”?
As Shakespeare wrote in “King Lear,” “Jesters do oft prove prophets.” Certainly there are some bad apples, but not all lawyers are joke-worthy. In fact, in my experience, the majority are not. Some of the greatest Americans in history have been lawyers, and some of my best friends are lawyers. My father is a lawyer, my father-in-law is a lawyer, and my great-grandfather was a lawyer. I’m proud to count myself as a member of this profession.
Because of this, it troubles me when our profession is reduced to jokes. If the public perception of lawyers perpetuates the jokes and negative portrayals, and if those jokes and portrayals bother us, what can we do to change the public perception?
First, we can behave better toward others. We can be the voice of reason, not just the loudest voice. We can be the seekers of truth and justice, not just the next client. We can be there for our clients, not just our own practice. These may sound like platitudes, but they are not. They are the right things to do. We all spent years studying to become lawyers, and many of us have spent even more years practicing. All of us — from the millennial to the baby boomer — became lawyers to help other people. Did we lose sight of that along the way? If so, there is no reason we can’t find our way again, starting today.
Second, we can let people know what we do. This is not as selfish or arrogant a suggestion as it might sound. The point is to de-stigmatize lawyers. Talk to non-lawyers about being a lawyer. Talk to them about what you do, about who you help. Non-lawyers might be surprised to learn that lawyers don’t always wear a gray suit, carry a briefcase, or sit at mahogany desks. Almost every lawyer I get to know is an interesting and unique person. Imagine that.
Third, and perhaps most important, we can give back. Indiana Rules of Professional Conduct 6.1 reminds us that lawyers “should render public interest legal service.” The American Bar Association and the Indiana State Bar Association’s House of Delegates have spoken similar words. Indeed, this is our responsibility as professionals trained to help others. We should already be giving back with our time and our expertise. The opportunities for pro bono work are everywhere. The Indiana Pro Bono Commission, by its mission statement, strives “to promote equal access to justice for all Indiana residents” by facilitating and coordinating pro bono programs. If you don’t know where to start, try there.
We can all do something to raise our profession above the sea of lawyer jokes, and it’s probably easier than you think. No kidding.•
Matthew King is a member in Frost Brown Todd in Indianapolis and is a member of the Board of Directors of DTCI. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.