As a law professor, I have a soft spot for lawyer movies.
Philadelphia is high on my list of favorites. In a particularly memorable scene, Tom Hanks’s character, Andrew Beckett, is lying on his deathbed. At his side is his lawyer, Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington. True to his form, Andrew (himself a lawyer) manages to find humor in this grim moment and cracks a joke:
Andrew: “What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?”
Joe: “I don’t know. What?”
Andrew: “A good start.”
Lawyer jokes have been around for centuries. One of the earliest, and most well-known examples, appears in William Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Most people who quote this line have little idea of its surrounding context.
The line is spoken by Dick the Butcher. As his name implies, Dick’s a killer and a gang member. He’s allied with Jack Spade, who’s seeking to overthrow the King and assume the throne himself.
On one interpretation (there are others), Dick’s suggestion to kill all the lawyers is far from tongue-in-cheek. He’s serious. He believes that lawyers stand in the way of their planned revolution. They must be eliminated.
Just after the line is spoken, Dick and his allies kick off their plan by murdering the county clerk.
This past Friday, as I watched lawyers across the country flock to the aid of immigrants detained by a draconian executive order, I couldn’t help but think of Dick the Butcher, his planned revolution, and all the lawyers standing in his way.
If Andrew Beckett from Philadelphia could see what this proud law professor saw on Friday night, he might have changed his joke.
What do you call a thousand lawyers gathered together in airports across the country?
A good start.