So you want to be a criminal lawyer...

What is Criminal Law Humour and Do I Like It?

Why are there so many Jewish comedians?  From Jerry Seinfeld to Rodney Dangerfield to Mel Brooks to Larry David to Seth Rogan, what is it about the European Jewish culture that produced so many hilarious minds?  After practicing criminal law for many years, to me I have come up with an answer – it is a culture that emerged from suffering and hardship.

There are other reasons of course, but humour is a coping mechanism when encountering hardship that increases the odds of survival.  

Criminal lawyers use humour for the same reason – to survive and persevere in difficult situations. Our clients are in a lot of trouble.  The stress of a trial is sometimes indescribable. Reputations and liberty are on the line. Humour helps us manage all of this and do our jobs.

I remember the first time I encountered criminal law humour. I worked for a criminal defence lawyer after my first year of law school and was attending court to do a set date for the first time at 2201 Finch court in Toronto. I was trying to act as lawyerly as I possibly could for my first set date, which I was very nervous about. I walked into the lawyer’s lounge and I think I expected to hear lawyers talking about the finer points of the Charter or being philosophical about the importance of the presumption of innocence. Instead, I heard a very senior lawyer make a crude joke about a case. I was, at the time, quite shocked.

But over time, I got over my shock and started to embrace criminal law humour. After I embraced it, I learned the hard way that criminal law humour is not for everyone. I told a female friend of mine a story in a jovial manner about a cross-examination that happened in a case I had seen. I, of course, thought this story was hilarious, but during and after my story, my female friend´s facial expression never changed from a death stare. An awkward pause followed before I excused myself from the situation. I later heard from a mutual friend of ours that she was none-too-impressed with my sense of humour. I understand how criminal law humour can cause offence. I agree that the whole situation of a criminal charge to all the parties involved is very unfunny and it can be thought of as offensive to make a joke about.

However, I think back to the senior lawyer that made a crude joke about a case and can´t help but think that it helped him to persevere as a criminal defence lawyer.

Criminal lawyers do not make jokes about cases because they find the situation funny, it is actually exactly the opposite. A sense of humour is used as a coping mechanism for the very unfunny situations that we find ourselves in. Criminal law humour helps us manage the stress and pressure and persevere. 

It is interesting to practice criminal defence for a long time because it has a high attrition rate. People drop out of criminal defence all the time. Among the ones that remain, it is my sense that the vast majority of them would make jokes about their cases or about things that others do not see the humour in and may take offence to.  If you are interested in criminal law, it is worth asking yourself: would I find it funny to hear a joke about a criminal case, even a very serious one? Or would I be offended? If you are someone that would find it offensive, it is my view that you have a disadvantage when it comes to practicing criminal defence.

Without humour it makes it that much harder to do this job.  A criminal law sense of humour confers an evolutionary advantage on us, the way it did the Jewish community of Europe.  I have seen enough criminal lawyers drop out to know.

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