Lawyer jokes (from 2013)

AMID the general doom and gloom about skills in South Africa, it is often supposed that the country simply does not have enough lawyers. According to the Law Society of South Africa, the reality is rather different.

Over the past 15 years, undergraduate enrolments in law programmes have almost doubled, articles of clerkship have mushroomed and the number of practising registered attorneys has increased by more than half to 20,000.

Despite this success story, the legal profession continues to enjoy an uneven reputation.

The ethics of our most prominent legal professionals are constantly questioned in the media. Scrutiny may be especially harsh when, like presidential legal adviser Michael Hulley, the lawyer in question happens to be black.

Challenges of affordability and access further mar the legal profession’s public image. Senior counsel can charge upwards of R50,000 a day for their services, creating the perception, in the words of a former chairman of the Cape Bar, of a silks’ “feeding trough”. Even candidate attorneys in small firms can bill R1,000 for an hour’s work.

Citizens earning less than R5,500 a month can ostensibly access legal aid, but the government provides only about R1.5bn a year to fund such services. This money is spread thinly because almost 500,000 citizens face criminal charges at present.

Resentment of high fees may explain the aggression that typifies popular lawyer jokes. Question: what should you do if you run over a lawyer? Answer: back over him just to be sure. Question: how do you save a drowning lawyer? Answer: take your foot off his head.

Race, once again, is an issue. Highly paid white senior counsel are typically lauded by the newspapers for their allegedly astonishing analytical powers. Dali Mpofu, by contrast, has been lambasted for seeking payment of the modest sum of R17,000 a day, no doubt a reasonable consideration given his inestimable capabilities.

The profession has been slow to improve access to legal services. There is little pro bono work, and lawyers have failed to champion postqualification internships in community service. Unjustifiable barriers to entry, moreover, exclude foreign lawyers and international law firms from competing in the domestic legal services sector.

The central issue, of course, is transformation. The recent dismissal of advocate Paul Hoffman’s complaint against Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, stemming from a speech the latter delivered in July on judicial transformation, will hopefully encourage reflection on this matter. Lawyers are still overwhelmingly white; briefing patterns, in the public and private sectors, still perpetuate discrimination.

As matters stand, citizens have little sympathy for lawyers of all races. When inebriated high court Judge Nkola Motata crashed his Jaguar into the wall of a Hurlingham property in 2007, many cruel jokes were circulated. Question: what do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 100? Answer: Your Honour.

But international studies have shown that lawyers are often heavy drinkers. They are more likely than almost any other professional to get into a car crash. Their suicide rate, according to one Canadian study, is six times that of the general population. And lawyers everywhere are susceptible to episodes of serious depression.

None of this is surprising. Legal practitioners cannot succeed in their work without suppressing human considerations of fairness and efficiency. People enjoy autonomy in the workplace, but lawyers are constrained and tormented by the law itself, as well as by the demands of legal regulation. Because they are at the service of their clients, they must ignore their deepest moral intuitions and pursue objectives and values that may be repugnant to them.

For all these reasons, citizens really should not spread jokes that deepen negative stereotypes of the profession. To take one reprehensible example: Question: how can you tell when a lawyer is lying? Answer: his lips are moving.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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