Screw You and Your Legal Ethics Joke

Not an Elle Columns, Lawyer 6 Comments

Myself and countless other law students will take the MPRE this week. I should probably be more worried about it, but I think my 3L apathy may be kicking in a little early. I’m still in summer mode — anxiety and stress belong to the other seasons. I took a legal profession class last semester that was basically a review of the model rules, with a midterm and final consisting solely of old MPRE questions. Those feeble defenses for my lethargy aside, probably the most substantial factor in my readiness to take the test is putting an end to the countless jokes from my father and others about lawyers and ethics (“Lawyers and ethics — those are two words that don’t belong in the same sentence!” “How can you take a test on ethics? Everyone knows lawyers don’t have any!”). Simply put, I want the damn ethics test – and the jokes – behind me.

Of course my lack of concern cannot be applied across the law school spectrum. Like the bar exam, not everyone passes the MPRE the first time. In true law school form, I’ve observed the slow but steady emergence of the MPRE in social media. From studying schedules and complaints to sample hypotheticals, I am perpetually reminded of the pseudo-obsession at the opposite end of the spectrum. A habitual pattern from finals is returning: people seem to think their studying counts more if they let all of their friends know that’s what they’re up to.

None of this is to say that I won’t get last minute paranoia or apprehension, perhaps some trouble sleeping the night prior to the test. It happens with almost every exam, like some sort of emotional procrastination. The closer the exam gets, the more real it and its consequences become. A few days from now, maybe I’ll feel differently. Surely, the night of the MPRE I’ll celebrate like it has been some great onus, a burden to bear, the bulk of the rules of ethics weighing on my shoulders, and all these encumbrances relieved, afflictions lifted as soon as the test is completed. But really, the real “problem,” if you will, is the jokes.

The two primary reasons I am ready to take the MPRE don’t have anything to do with preparation or confidence in my mastery of the nuances of ethical rules. The first is so I can stop explaining what MPRE stands for and what it is. No matter how I describe it (“it’s an ethics test” or “MPRE stands for Model Professional Rules of Ethics”) the end result is usually a slightly puzzled expression, followed promptly by the second reason I’m ready to take the test: so I can stop hearing the overdone, un-amusing, jokes about lawyers and ethics that every person who isn’t a member of the legal community is so fond of proffering, almost always with that pleased with themselves expression that tells me they think they’re funny and original. Polite smiling and laughter have never been my fortes; my grin typically comes off as more of a grimace and my laugh is a forced out “ha” just a second too late, sounding more like I’m clearing my throat post-choking. Which is probably more apt; I’m always trying to stifle my desire to tell people I don’t want to hear it.

I have so little tolerance for and interest in this joke that I wince in anticipation as soon as I see it start to spew out someone’s mouth. I never quite understand why as soon as reference is made to the legal profession, people immediately make jokes belittling it. I don’t mock any of the professionals I encounter that require some kind of specialized degree: doctors, dentists, orthodontists, speech language pathologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, engineers, etc. I’m not sure what it is about the legal profession that draws in this kind of jest. I understand there have been a few bad apples, that many people with law degrees have made very significant blunders; I just don’t understand the general comfort of others in ridiculing the occupation. (Well, that is, unless you are in the profession; this is Bitter Lawyer after all.)

So, while I may be apathetic (possibly turning apprehensive) about the test itself, I’m certainly enthusiastic for its end, so hopefully I can lay these jokes to rest and stop having to explain the test, if only for a little while.

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  • Self-Deprecating Counsel

    Why is the profession mocked? I imagine there are a litany of reasons, some a product of imagination or anger, others legitimate.

    …we “complicate” matters that might otherwise be resolved with little incident.

    …we advocate with zeal even when there is little to no doubt that our client is in the wrong (this may be construed as being dishonest, despite its noble underpinnings).

    …we are expensive, despite frequently providing a service that may entail little more than drafting letters and making phone calls.

    …it is harder for people to conceptualize and quantify the benefits conferred upon society by attorneys than those conferred by Doctors (heal the sick), Dentists (fix the teeth), or Engineers (build the roads). In addition to that, unlike with Doctors, Dentists, etc., when we “do good” by one person/group, that typically means that we’ve “done bad” by another…the practice of law necessarily involves winners AND losers. For every person we make happy, there is usually at least one person that we’ve pissed off, and the latter are often the most vocal.

    …and, finally, our profession really doesn’t demand any specific skill or highly-specialized training. We get paid to know a little bit about a lot of things, and to speak as if we’re an authority on the world. It’s a profession of bullsh*tters, akin to car salesmen (the other crew that gets lambasted 24/7).

    • r. dernister

      I hate to admit it, but there is a valid basis to the generalized hostility expressed via jokes, and Self-Deprecating made the point rather well. Annette, there are, indeed, “high standards lawyers are required to follow.” Most of them don’t bother. I’m an old man now and I regret having chosen law as a career. I love the law, but it’s the lawyers I don’t much like.

  • The Dean

    Why aren’t there more banker jokes? That’s what I want to know. It’s not as if lawyers almost single-handedly caused the near collapse of the entire U.S. economy out of pure greed. Well, but then there’s Saul Goodman: Ah, man. I dunno. I’m so conflicted.

  • Frank

    On Thursday I suggest you rev up your crotch for 24 hours of nonstop action like I did.

  • Justin

    I’ve told people several times, I never understood why people hated lawyers so much until I went to law school and was surrounded by them.

  • Annette

    People rarely operate in an adverserial nature against other professionals. When you go see your doctor, you don’t have another doctor across the room mocking your every move, and trying to make your doctor screw up. When your accountant prepares your tax return, there isn’t another team of accountants trying to hide information from her in an effort to make her work product ineffective. In litigation, even if people have a very good experience with their own lawyer, they have a very bad impression of and experience with opposing counsel. The other side is often viewed as unethical, sleazy, mean, and using technicalities to their advantage. Being deposed or cross-examined by a seasoned lawyer will often leave a person hating that lawyer, and attributing the sentiment to the profession in general. This is true even when the examining lawyer has been very professional and courteous, but is thoroughly doing his or her job. This used to bug me, too. However, when you get your client’s undying adoration just for doing your job well, it won’t bother you at all that the witness you just examined hates you. It comes with the territory. Also, when you are presented with REAL ethical dilemmas, and you apply our knowledge, intellect, and skill to determining the right thing to do, (after consulting with every lawyer you know), you will also feel proud of the high standards lawyers are required to follow. It’s EASY to be ethical when your requirement is to “do no harm”. It might be pretty easy if our only job was to always act in the best interest of our client. Try balancing the interests of your client against your duty to the judiciary, opposing counsel, and the law itself. It gets complicated. Practicing law is not for babies. Be proud of it.