Call to End Lawyer-Bashing Inspires Even More Jokes : Backlash: Radio listeners condemn the profession. State Bar chief’s campaign even annoys some attorneys.


A campaign by the president of the State Bar of California to end lawyer-bashing in the wake of last week’s high-rise massacre here has instead triggered a flood of calls denouncing attorneys to radio talk shows and inspired even more jokes at lawyers’ expense.

Even many lawyers were annoyed when Bar President Harvey Saferstein, speaking out after the mass shooting at a San Francisco law office, called for a “cease-fire” on lawyer jokes and compared them to hate speech against African-Americans.

“Most lawyers are reacting with astonishment,” said Ray Reynolds, an attorney who is editor and publisher of California Lawyer. “In a sense, Harvey’s comments are the ultimate lawyer joke--asking that lawyers be singled out for special treatment.”


Comedian Jay Leno, who spices his “Tonight Show” monologues with lawyer jokes, had some advice for Saferstein and other lawyers in an interview Wednesday: “Not being an attorney, I will have to consult with my attorney, but I was under the impression that one did have the right to free speech.”

Jokes do not change people’s minds, Leno said. They only reinforce beliefs. “I don’t see attorneys coming to the defense of Al Gore, Dan Quayle and Zsa Zsa Gabor,” Leno said. “Are they serious? C’mon man, lighten up.”

Leno, ignoring Saferstein’s admonitions, said he was planning to work lawyer jokes into Wednesday night’s monologue. “Two of the big movies this year are ‘Sleepless in Seattle,’ about a man and a woman, and ‘The Firm,’ which is about lawyers and money,” offered Leno. “So they’re both love stories.”

Comedian Argus Hamilton, a regular at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood, said those who practice law have replaced Quayle as the favorite punching bags of American comics.

“America is in the blame mode right now,” he said. “And lawyers are the easiest targets of all.”

Taking aim, he added: “This is the same State Bar that came out last year against sex between attorneys and their clients. They didn’t want the clients to be double-billed for essentially the same service.”

Callers to radio talk shows have overwhelmingly insisted that lawyers deserve their bad reputations. In fact, Saferstein’s admonition about attorney-bashing seems to have provided people a forum for venting their feelings over run-ins with lawyers.

“I have had people call in and say bluntly, while ashamed to admit it, that when they heard it was lawyers getting shot up, they weren’t as upset about it,” said Lee Rodgers, host of a talk show on KGO radio in the Bay Area. “And that was not just one caller. It was several.”

A man named Steve in San Rafael sent KGO a fax complaining that the campaign against lawyer-bashing has trivialized last week’s tragedy by using it to “whine about lawyer jokes.”

And a woman faxed in a note calling the campaign by Saferstein “a crock.”

“I am a blonde,” she wrote, “and I don’t think if I got shot by a gunman that a dumb blonde joke would constitute a hate crime.”

At news conferences and on radio talk shows, Saferstein has suggested that the State Bar should examine whether legislation is needed to make crimes against lawyers subject to stiffer penalties by putting them in a special category similar to crimes against police, judges and political officials.

During the 15-minute shooting rampage July 1, a gunman killed eight people and injured six at the Pettit & Martin law firm before turning the gun on himself. A letter found on the killer’s body indicated that he blamed lawyers at the firm for recent financial setbacks.

Three of the eight killed were attorneys. The others were a law student, a legal secretary, a client and two employees of a trust company in the building.

“No one is calling for special protection for legal secretaries or court reporters or other kinds of people who are just as dead and just as injured as the lawyers involved,” said California Lawyer’s Reynolds.

But Saferstein was unrepentant Wednesday. If anything, he said, the venom he has heard directed at lawyers over the past few days on talk shows underscores how much a change of attitude is needed.

“Based upon my experience on these talk shows, the animosity of some people is frighteningly confirming of what I feared--which is that these people really do mean these mean-spirited jokes. The level of hostility is such that people come close to saying that the lawyers deserved what they got,” Saferstein said.

He said bloodsucker appeared to be most callers’ preferred description of attorneys, probably because most people deal with attorneys only when they have been dragged into the legal system against their will. “And they are not happy to have to pay to get out of the system,” he said.

Bill Handel, an attorney and talk show host on radio station KFI in Los Angeles, agreed that “sitting next to a lawyer is never a fun place to be.”

“It’s emotionally traumatic,” he said. “That’s ammunition, pardon the pun, for a lot of jokes.”

But Handel does not believe that lawyer jokes threaten attorneys’ safety. “We make postal employee jokes,” he said. “Does that mean people are going to start shooting postal employees? No.”

Los Angeles talk show host Michael Jackson said callers were flooding the KABC radio phone boards in response to Saferstein’s campaign. “It’s utterly ludicrous,” he said. “When you’ve got 800,000 lawyers in a country, they’re a very large target and deserve to be so.”

Beyond whether they are deserved, lawyer jokes diffuse tensions among attorneys and clients who have had unpleasant experiences with them, said Barbara Repa, a lawyer and legal editor who has edited lawyer joke books for Berkeley-based Nolo Press.

“For consumers who feel they have been wronged by the legal system, (jokes) act as an equalizer. If you can’t beat them, you can at least laugh at them,” Repa said.

Nolo News, a quarterly newspaper published by Nolo Press, regularly prints lawyer jokes, she said, and about half of them are submitted by lawyers. Repa said lawyer jokes date back hundreds of years.

For Nicholas Carroll, the San Francisco-based author of the anti-lawyer book, “Dancing with Lawyers--How to Take Charge and Get Results,” the fuss over lawyer jokes has made him a hot property on the talk show circuit. He said he spent most of Wednesday morning fielding calls from radio stations across the country.

“They’re telling lawyer jokes on the theory that they won’t be able to say them anymore,” Carroll said.

Saferstein may have accomplished at least part of his goal, however. Miller Brewing Co. announced that it was temporarily withdrawing a television commercial showing cowboys roping lawyers at a rodeo. Saferstein has singled out the commercial for special criticism. On Wall Street, where most major news events are followed by a frenzy of jokes, there was a noticeable dearth of lawyer jokes this week.

“I don’t think this guy (Saferstein) is deterring it at all,” said Rick Dowd, a bond salesman for Kidder Peabody & Co. “It’s just that a lot of people--the guys who make the jokes--are on vacation.”