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Quote unquote

“Lawyer walks into a bar….”

You know the rest. You’re at a party and you’ve just mentioned that you practice law. Invariably, inevitably and unenviably, someone uncorks a lawyer joke.

Usually a stupid or even insulting lawyer joke.

What do you do?

Puff up and act offended and you look like a jerk. Smile and nod, and you’re an accomplice in running down your own profession. Turn around and insult what the joke-teller does, and you really look like a jerk.

There is no good answer to this dilemma, which, I’ll wager, every lawyer has encountered at some point in his or her career.

There is a new book from the American Bar Association, entitled “The Ultimate Lawyer Quote Book,” that purports to provide plenty of snappy comebacks to dumb lawyer jokes. (One should always be wary of anything that calls itself the “ultimate”.)

But this stuff is pretty lacking in snap. Crackle and pop are in short supply, too.

For example, if someone calls you an ambulance chaser, recall Melvin Belli’s line, “I’m not an ambulance chaser. I’m usually there before the ambulance.”

If someone trots out the old chestnut, “What is the difference between a dead snake and a dead lawyer by the side of the road?”

Tired answer: “There are skidmarks in front of the snake.”

The book counsels instead, to retort, “No one makes boots out of lawyers,” quoting Richard Herzfeld.

This is the weakest section of a collection of quotations a lawyer can study and call on when looking for something witty. Compiler Malcolm Kushner promises, “This book will give you short, brilliant stuff to say for just about any occasion related to the practice of law.”

OK, that’s overselling. But there are some good ones in the book, which is organized by topic:

  • Good advice (Martin Buxbaum: “If you think you have someone eating out of your hand, it’s a good idea to count your fingers.”)
  • Billing and finance (Dorothy Parker: “The two most beautiful words in the English language are, ‘Check enclosed.’”)
  • Hiring (James Goldsmith: “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”)
  • Ethics (Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”)
  • Legal Insights (Steven Wright: “I busted a mirror and got seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five.”)
  • Analogies (Ronald Reagan: “Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.”)

You get the idea. Is this 202-page volume worth the 30 bucks the ABA asks for it?

It says there are more than 1,000 quotations from more than 500 people (I found a disturbing number of “Author Unknown” quotations). There is some good stuff in it, and some topics you might not find in other quotation books, such as Bartlett’s. And not so good – there may be a good-comebacks book written, but it’s still in the ether.

There is a section entitled, “Inspirational,” full of the aspirational stuff you’ll find on coffee mugs and posters. There’s Chris Guillebeau: “If plan ‘A’ fails – remember you have 25 letters left.” And there is Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

And then for some reason, Kushner concludes this section by quoting himself: “All of us are made of stars, just different constellations.”


Your 30 bucks. Your call.

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