Mt. Vernon Register-News

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March 29, 2013

How did lawyers get such a bad reputation?

(Continued)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, new epithets arose with which to disparage the lawyerly profession. In the 19th century, it became common to disdain insidious "shysters," leeches who would defend even the lowliest criminals (at least until they ran out of money). (The term is sometimes thought to be anti-Semitic in origin, but its origins are unclear.) In the 1930s, Disney would even introduce the scheming lawyer character Sylvester Shyster, while at the same time the Marx Brothers created the titular law firm of Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel (1932-33). Around the turn of the century, the shyster was joined by a new scourge. In 1897 the Congressional Record reported that "in New York City there is a style of lawyers known to the profession as 'ambulance chasers', because they are on hand wherever there is a railway wreck, or a street-car collision." The New York Times explained that the rise of the ambulance chaser was connected with the rise of "the automobile that slayeth in darkness and the trolley car that murdereth at midday." Though some, like the self-avowed ambulance chaser Abraham Gatner, wore the label with pride, bills aimed at combating ambulance chasing were introduced as early as 1906.

According to Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture, the number of U.S. lawyers tripled between 1965 and 2000, and the number of lawyer jokes surged along with it. This surge in lawyers was often viewed as a drain on the economy. For example, in 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle claimed that America was uncompetitive because it had 70 percent of the world's lawyers. This notion that there were too many lawyers was also reflected in lawyer jokes (e.g. variations on "What do you call 500 lawyers on the bottom of the ocean? . . . A good start"), which were first collected in The Ultimate Lawyers Joke Book in 1987. According to a common quip, "There are only three lawyer jokes. The rest are all true stories."

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