One little-noticed bit of fallout from the ongoing financial crisis is the decline of lawyer jokes.

"I don't think people are as worried about lawyers as they are bankers and financial people," Marc Galanter was saying this week.

Galanter, an emeritus UW-Madison law professor, would know. He wrote the book on lawyer jokes.

"Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture" came out in 2005. In the book, Galanter noted that it was around 1980 when lawyer jokes both increased and became more vicious.

What's the difference between a skunk and lawyer sprawled dead in the road? There are skid marks in front of the skunk.

Galanter also predicted — correctly, it turns out — that the viciousness would eventually subside, or at least transfer to another arena.

The success of "Lowering the Bar," and the satisfaction he got researching it, led Galanter to another area where law and the culture intersect.

The result is a book, just published, titled "Lawtalk: The Unknown Stories Behind Familiar Legal Expressions." (Galanter is one of four authors of "Lawtalk" — the others are James E. Clapp, Elizabeth G. Thornburg and Fred R. Shapiro.)

The new book explains how words and phrases such as "shyster," "jailbait," "green card," "rainmaker" and "indict a ham sandwich" came into everyday language.

One of my favorites is "rap sheet" — an individual's criminal record — which dates to 1947 but jumped in popularity in 1954 when a self-promoting crook named Blackie Audett wrote a colorful but factually challenged autobiography titled "Rap Sheet." One reviewer suggested Blackie's biggest crime was writing "Rap Sheet."

Incidentally, the green card — which documents a noncitizen's right to live and work in the United States — hasn't been green since 1964.

The phrase "indict a ham sandwich" — which speaks to how prosecutors can easily manipulate grand juries — was popularized by a Jewish judge who later said he wished he had made the sandwich corned beef.

Galanter and his wife Eve — a well-known civic and political activist and former Madison City Council member — have been in town since the mid-1970s. They'll be married 45 years this year. One of their three children, Seth Galanter, is a Washington, D.C., attorney who has twice appeared in front of the United States Supreme Court.

Marc and Eve went out for the arguments. "I was impressed by his stage presence," Marc said. "He was very cool and didn't get rattled."

Marc has taught at the London School of Economics and has a particular interest and expertise in the legal system of India, a country he visits often.

I first met him a decade ago, when he was researching the lawyer joke book.

It was a daunting task — Galanter accumulated some 1,000 joke books that he plans to donate to UW-Madison — and of course he wanted to discuss the more scholarly aspects of his work while I kept peppering him for his favorite lawyer jokes.

Prior to 1980, Galanter said, the jokes were linked to various aspects of the profession and could even be complimentary: A guy on trial for murder is acquitted. Walking out of the courthouse, his lawyer asks, "Did you kill him?" The guy says, "I thought so, until I heard your closing argument."

The harsher tone, Galanter said, came about with societal changes — an explosion in red tape and attendant frustrations — that made lawyers easy scapegoats.

What's the difference between a vulture and a lawyer? Wing tips.

The new book "Lawtalk" — available on Amazon — includes a few jokes as sidebars to the main entries.

Back when the joke book came out, I asked Galanter his favorite. He said he liked the more cerebral jokes, and shared one, which I paraphrase here:

A dying rich guy doesn't believe you can't take it with you. He calls in his priest, doctor and lawyer and gives them each an envelope with $100,000 in cash and instructions to place it in his casket when he dies.

The guy dies, and they all put their envelopes in the casket. Later, the priest admits, "I kept $20,000 for our homeless fund." The doctor says, "I kept $50,000 for our hospital charity."

The lawyer says, "Shame on you two." They ask: You put it all in?

The lawyer smiles. "I put in my personal check for $100,000."

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or

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