Consider this definition (which I’m borrowing from my own work):
“Business development: Playing golf with old college buddies. As in: ‘Of course I charged the firm for my business development trip to Scotland.'”
If you’re in high school, you did not think that was funny.
If you’re in law school, you have a bemused look on your face.
Why is that? I submit that there’s a generational divide in legal humor.
When my daughter was in first grade, and her classmates were all losing their baby teeth, I picked up Jessica’s arm one day and felt around in her armpit. “Hey, Jessica,” I asked, “are any of your classmates losing their baby arms yet?”
Jessica didn’t laugh. Instead, she gave me a look that said, “I’m pretty sure that he’s kidding — but if he’s not, this really sucks.”
I got that same look recently from a bunch of students at the University of Chicago Law School . . . .
I’ve now given my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law some 60 or 70 times. (I’m about to retire that talk, because I’m moving to London shortly, and I doubt that the talk will have the same appeal for Brits that it does over here in the former colonies. Perhaps that’s what prompted me to ruminate about this subject.) When I give the book talk to law firms — groups that include partners — I often feel like Robin Williams. I’m at times waiting three seconds for the laughter to die down so I can start my next sentence. (Those groups occasionally interrupt the talk with applause.) When I give the talk to groups of associates, I get only scattered laughter (and never applause). When I give the talk at law schools (as I did at U. Chicago a couple of weeks ago), 100 students are staring at me with a look that reminds me of Jessica: “I’m pretty sure that he’s kidding — but if he’s not, this really sucks.”
(On reflection, maybe I should have adapted the talk for different audiences, huh? Oh, well; live and learn.)
Why the generational divide in legal humor?
I submit that it’s what you’ve lived.
When you’re still in school, you don’t yet fully appreciate how freely some lawyers spend their firms’ money. After you’ve been practicing for a while, you’ve seen (or heard about) the memos to partners that say things like: “We can no longer permit partners to re-stock their entire liquor cabinets at firm expense. In the future, partners who host gatherings for summer associates will be reimbursed a set sum of $X per attendee for the cost of beverages served at these social events.” Or: “In the future, lawyers will not be permitted to purchase new shirts at firm expense if lawyers are forced to spend an unexpected night on the road. The firm (or a client) can properly be charged for the cost of laundering a shirt under these circumstances.”
Read memos like that for a couple of decades, and golf outings to Scotland at firm expense begin to seem entirely plausible.
Here’s a closing example of humor that doesn’t cross the generational divide:
“Why do I insist that we discuss cases this way?
“Because our clients prefer to win.”
If you’re young, not so funny.
If you’re old (and a litigator), you just grinned.
If you’re still scratching your head about all this, make a note on your calendar to re-read this column in 20 years. It’ll be funnier then; I promise.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at email@example.com.