Brothers-in-Law: Another Round of Legal Humor

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Inspired by last week's column on lawyer jokes, Travel columnist Eric Anderson, MD, takes a turn at legal laughs.

Greg Kelly, my former editor of the print version of Physician’s Money Digest in his tribute to Justice Scalia wrote “What's wrong with lawyer jokes? Lawyers don't think they're funny and other people don't think they're jokes.”

Lawyers are not alone. Immigrants who are Irish, Scottish or Australian find their teasing humor does not really work in the United States for the same reason — yet somehow that doesn’t stop them!

Physicians at the end of any forlorn day must think they alone endure the slings of spleeny consumers and arrows of cantankerous colleagues.

Doctors might therefore be comforted to know that the law can be lonely too, that the Bench can be a hot seat, and that judges endure the same posturing by the public and pleading by associates that physicians face.

However, an older attending physician confronted by a hot-shot junior has an advantage over the judge: he can always slip away claiming an emergency or, failing that, dismiss the younger one to repeat a lab test.

The judge however merely sits silently and suffers—or does he?

Although in the land of the lawyers a judge may on occasion be silent, he is known to have the gift of looking "at a lawyer, who is presenting an argument, squarely in the eye for an hour or two, and not hear a damn word."

And yet if the judge does not remain silent, sometimes he might wish that he had. F.E. Smith, the famous English barrister who became Lord Birkenhead, was once challenged by a judge: "What do you think I am on the Bench for, Mr. Smith?" The brilliant lawyer replied "It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence."

Another judge, another day, crossed swords with the same earnest lawyer to this exchange: "I have listened to you, Mr. Smith, but I am none the wiser," said the judge. "Possibly not, my lord, but you are much better informed," the younger man replied.

This same young lawyer was once the guest speaker in London at a company dinner. The introductory speaker droned on and on turning his talk into the main speech of the evening. He then said, "And now I call on F.E. Smith for his address," to which F.E. replied "It's Grosvenor Square and that's where I'm going right now."

Just as it is said that when a psychiatrist treats a long winded neurotic, the first thing he does on going home is kick his dog, so it is found that those who sit on the Bench squirming at the earnest circumlocutions of their young colleagues—retaliate.

This could explain the reaction once of Lord Chief Justice Toler who was asked for a donation of a shilling (then 25¢) to cover the costs of burying an impoverished lawyer. "Only a shilling to bury an attorney?" he said. "Here is a pound; go and bury twenty of them."


Truly, to the judge, time is precious and silence golden. It was said of Chief Justice Hughes that he would hold each speaker to exactly his allotted time, and that once he called time on a leader of the New York Bar in the middle of the word "if."

Would that such disciplines were found in the doctor-patient relationship. There are however many similarities between the art of Medicine and the skills of Law.

Mr. Edward J. Bander, the librarian at the law school where my daughter started her law career, Suffolk University, has recounted enough legal anecdotes to make any doctor listening realize how alike the lawyer is to the physician.

For example:

The art of asking the patient the right question

The first question Justice Holmes asked on his first day on the Supreme Court was the standard inquiry on the appeals procedure by which the pending case reached the high court. "How did you get here?" Justice Holmes inquired timidly. And the attorney replied from the stand: "By the B. & O. Railroad, Your Honor."

The importance of a complete history

"That is your eleventh point," Holmes once said to a young counselor, "and it is as bad as the other 10. Have you any more points?" "Well, my Lord," replied the persistent advocate, "I have one other point. I don't think much of it myself, but you never can tell what a court may think of any point."

This last statement was amply vindicated. He won on his last point.

The pain of hearing a long story

J. F. Grozner was not a concise thinker, and in his arguments in Court were not always confined to the questions at issue, often taking up the time of the trial by his excursions into irrelevant discussion, much to the displeasure of the judges. US District Judge Hallett was especially critical. "Counselor, please confine your argument to the points in this case," said Judge Hallett on one occasion.

"What point, Your Honor?" asked Mr. Grozner. "Any point," replied Judge Hallett.

…or one even longer

For two hours a judge had listened with deepening desperation to a barrister gnawing at a dry bone of law. Goaded beyond endurance, he burst out at last: "Mr. So and So, you have said that before, many, many times before."

"I'm very sorry, my Lord, I quite forgot."

"Don't apologize," said the judge. "I forgive you, for it was a very long time ago."

The need for the doctor to listen

"Mr. Smith, I have read your pleadings but I do not think much of your case." "I am sorry to hear that, my Lord," Smith replied. "But your Lordship will find that the more you hear of it the more it will grow on you."

…and endure

An attorney who was pleading a case before a jury with much long dissertation on the merits of the case noted that the judge was becoming disinterested, and asked, "Is it the pleasure of the judge that I continue." "Pleasure, my dear Sir," said the judge, "is long out of the question, but you may proceed.”

The need not to judge a colleague in advance

Copley, John S. (to himself as he listened to an oral argument): "What a damned fool that man is!" Then after an interval, "Eh, not such a damned fool as I thought." Then another interval, "Egad, it is I that was the damned fool"

The importance of not having an inflated sense of our own value

It seems that in the course of argument of a case before the United States Supreme Court, a lawyer repeatedly cited as precedent the judgments of Mr. Justice Peffley. Finally the Chief Justice leaned over and said, "Counsel, the court does not readily identify Mr. Justice Peffley. Would you please tell us who he is?" "Why," replied the attorney, "Mr. Justice Peffley is the Justice of the Peace of the Fifth District of Kaw Township of Jackson County, Missouri." Thereupon the Chief Justice said, "Well, now, Counsel, the court does not care to hear any more references to Mr. Justice Peffley. He is not considered to be persuasive authority here." Whereupon the lawyer retorted: "That is a coincidence. Only last week I heard Mr. Justice Peffley make an identical statement about the judgment of this court."

…or that of a colleague

Quite pontifically the young barrister stated: "Your Honor, this case involves a contract; a contract requires an offer and an acceptance, a consideration and a lawful object. . . " The judge interrupted him and stated: "Counsel, don't you think you can assume that the judges of this court know the elements of a contract?" "Heck no," replied the lawyer, ''that's the mistake I made in the lower court."

The need for clarity of thought in consultations

It has been said that every lawyer should repeat each argument three times, especially when addressing a tribunal consisting of more than one judge. You state the argument the first time in order that one of the judges may grasp your point. You repeat the argument the second time in order that, while you are repeating it, he may explain the point to his brethren. Then you repeat the argument the third time in order to correct the erroneous impression which that judge has unfortunately conveyed.

…and an awareness of what ivory tower specialists think of the patient's local doctor

The young barrister got up to mitigate in a case. Nervous, trying to be confident, he began with an impressive delivery: "May it please your Lordship, in this case my unfortunate client"—and then he froze completely, lost track of the argument, and could not go on. There were titters, and, finally, the judge, Lord Ellenborough, leaned forward and said "Go on Sir, go on. So far the court is entirely with you."

And finally a lesson for life: Quit when you're ahead

A young barrister was belaboring an obscure point of the law before Lord Justice Montgomery, an irascible old character. Another much older barrister, sitting in the bar enclosure, wrote a note and sent it up to the young lawyer who was arguing the case. The note said, "Sit down. The old bastard is with you."

The judge said, "Young man, I notice that your brother handed you a note. May I see it?" The young man was terribly embarrassed, and said, "I am sorry, your honor, but this is a confidential matter between my brother and me." The judge said, "I am sorry, too, but this happened in my court room. Hand me the note."

So the lawyer handed up the note. The judge glared at the young man and said, "Young man, have you read this message?"

He said, "Yes, sir." The judge said, "Then read it again!"

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.