© 2001  Karen Selick
If the Joke FitsÖ
An edited version of this article first appeared in the June, 2001 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


If the Joke FitsÖ

Most readers have probably heard the lawyer joke that goes like this:  Why have scientists started using lawyers in laboratory experiments?  Because there are some things that rats just wonít do.

Some lawyers get all steamed up over jokes like this.  I never take offence at lawyer jokes, no matter how caustic.  I just figure they donít apply to me, and I try to conduct myself so that anyone who deals with me will realize it too. 

The lab rat joke is a good example.  At the risk of provoking letters castigating me for filling this page with a nauseating holier-than-thou sermon, the fact is that there are lots of things I just wonít do.  Over the years, Iíve turned away a number of clients who wanted me to do things for them that I found morally repugnant.  The problem is, a great many of those things were perfectly legal.  Some are becoming downright commonplace.

For instance, Iíve turned away people who had lived common-law with someone and thought they should be entitled to walk away with a share of their ex-loverís house merely because they had helped clean it for a couple of years.  

Iíve turned away people who had signed separation agreements with full legal advice a few years earlier and now wanted to get them overturned because they werenít happy with the course their lives had taken and wanted to make their former partners share in their misery.  

Iíve turned away people who wanted to set up corporations with relatives as nominal shareholders  so they could disguise a short-term bit of contract work as full-time employment and make themselves eligible for a yearís employment insurance benefits.  

Whenever I send people packing like this, Iím always careful to point out the distinction between what I think they might be able to achieve legally, and what I am willing to do for them as a matter of my own conscience.  Itís not that they donít have a strong case according to current law, Iím obliged to tell them.  Thereís a good chance that they will be able to find some other lawyer who will be able to ride it to victory.  But I canít help asking myself: if I take this case and win it for this client, will I be able to stomach living in the kind of world Iíve helped to create?  

I rarely find out what these rejected would-be clients decide to do after leaving my office.  Maybe my moral condemnation shames some of them out of their plansóI donít know.   However, I suspect that most of them simply go to another lawyer who doesnít share my scruples and who  happily tries to assist them in transforming the world into the kind of place I donít want to live in.  

What goes on in those other lawyersí minds, I sometimes wonder?  Is it just that they disagree with my notions of what is right and wrong?  Unfortunately, I think itís something far worse than that.  Occasionally when Iíve discussed these issues with other lawyers over the years, Iíve heard them say something like this:  "Well, maybe the law is unjust, but if I donít take this case, somebody else will, so I might as well make a buck out of it as the next guy."

And thatís why we have the lab rat joke.  Maybe the reason some lawyers are so sensitive about it is that they know deep down that thereís a large grain of truth to it.

Personally, I find itís getting harder and harder to find an area of law where I can do a good, conscientious job for clients without compromising my own principles. Matrimonial law has been my main field for 16 years, but itís getting to be a whinerís paradise, where no matter what outlandish claims someone makes, thereís some obliging judge or legislature willing to hand over someone elseís money.  The old swinging pendulum seems to have gotten permanently stuck way out in left field.  The choices for lawyers seem to be to act for plaintiffs pursuing claims that make you sick, or to act for defendants and always be on the losing side.

The same pattern seems to have developed in just about every field of law.  Who wants to be on the cutting edge of employment law, demanding that employers eradicate every word or gesture in the workplace that could conceivably be construed as sexual harassment, while simultaneously insisting that they be forbidden from dismissing employees without gobs of notice and severance pay?  Who wants to push the envelope in tort law, continually expanding the circle of bystanders who can be held responsible when someone gets drunk and smashes himself up in an accident?  Who wants to make headlines in the product liability field, extracting millions of dollars from a drive-through restaurant for a customer who spilled hot coffee in her lap?  Not me.  

Some lawyers seem to revel in this sort of thing.  I guess it makes them feel smarter than everybody else, making new law.  Well, theyíre welcome to it.  I aspire to something more rewarding than being the smartest lab rat on the block.  

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July 31, 2000