Once I found myself in a contentious oral argument with another attorney in tight quarters (before a judge in his chambers). I was demanding relief for my client that was relatively reasonable, but the other attorney was not having it–and he was practically snarling his responses to my points. The atmosphere could not have been tenser: the more my adversary snarled the more irritated with him I got. I felt the blood rising up my face and my heart beating in my ears. Everyone, including the judge, was in a dreadful mood as we battled it out.
This scene is not uncommon: we lawyers can be a dour bunch. The popularly conjured images of grim-faced people in suits tut-tutting about what should or should not happen are not far from reality. And it's understandable: the nature of our profession is to take things (i.e., laws and their consequences) seriously. But good lord, it doesn't have to be this way.
After that particular oral argument, which ended in a draw when the judge asked us to submit a brief summarizing our legal points, I did what I try to do whenever possible: I injected a bit of humor into the room. As we were packing up to leave, the judge mentioned something about his nephew studying for the bar exam (which was coming up soon at that time) and I seized the opportunity to tell one of my favorite jokes about the bar exam...
...it was during the summer I was studying for the bar exam and I spent a ton of time hanging out in Central Park (to let off steam, of course), I met a cute guy there one afternoon and we chatted for a bit and he asked me "what are you doing here in NYC?" and I said "I'm studying for the bar exam" ... he paused, looking me in the eyes...suddenly he shot out "what's in a Tom Collins?"–I stared at him having no idea what he was talking about...then a light bulb went off in my head, I grinned, and said "noooooo, not that bar exam..."
Both my adversary and the judge (and me too) burst out laughing. Maybe it's only funny to lawyers, but lawyers laugh every time I tell that story and in this particular situation it worked: the tension in the room dissipated immediately. We all left in a better mood.
Any time I make a judge laugh I know I am half way to my goal of winning. Studies show that laughing triggers the release of endorphins, you know, the kind that make you feel good. And when a judge feels good about something I've said, I think he's far more likely to rule in my favor. I'm not saying that making a judge laugh/feel good is the surest way I win arguments–because I have certainly lost arguments after cracking a good joke. But humor is one of the arrows in my argument quiver; I use it whenever I can to hit my mark.
I use it in my writing, too. Not just because I think the judge or clerk reading my brief will be more likely to consider my client's position favorably (because of the endorphin-releasing-feel-good-effect), but also because I want my writing to be interesting. The way a good novel is interesting, you know, the page-turner kind you can't put down. Let me tell you, I have read 100s of briefs at this point and 99% of them are mind-numbingly boring.
This is an age of constant-partial-attention–a result of the massive amounts of data we are all being bombarded with on a daily basis, judges and their clerks included. Everyone gets distracted easily, so how in the world can anyone focus on something as boring as a legal brief with nothing more than a dry recitation of facts and cases? Anything I can do to make my brief so interesting that the judge/clerk stays focused on it all the way to the end (you know, the way you do when you want to know how the great novel turns out), I do it. And if my brief brings out a few chuckles as well, then all the better (and maybe it'll stave off that ever-present threat of depression that the lawyer profession suffers from).
Using humor is one way I keep my briefs interesting. It also makes my job more enjoyable. The most fun I had writing a brief was in the case involving a business consultant and her "Midas Broken Touch" (read the brief below and laugh freely).
I've always rebelled against the dreary aura surrounding lawyers–it's the opposite of my personality and I refuse to be put into any kind of cage (lawyer stereotypes be damned). I take the arguments I make seriously; but as you can see I use humor as much as possible. And you should too.
Want to submit an interesting brief so that your judge will be in a better mood? Get in touch and I will tell you how I can do it for you.