How to Kill Your Opponent With Laughter

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on March 13, 2019 4:20 PM

Stand-up comedians say they are killing it when audiences laugh; lawyers just want to kill in their arena.

It's the nature of the beast, the law of the jungle. Lawyers are trained to attack, but laughter could be their most potent weapon.

At the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, the Justices kill off attorneys with snark and sarcasm. That's why they call laughter a blood sport of the court.

"A Blood Sport"

Law professors Tonja Jacobi and Matthew Sag studied the role of laughter in Supreme Court arguments. They found more than 9,000 laughing moments in 6,864 arguments recorded from 1955 to 2017.

They discerned a pattern: the Justices most often direct their humor at lawyers who are novices, losing, or making the wrong argument. Some Justices are self-deprecating or whimsical, they said.

"But overall humor of the court is pretty mean," the authors said. "We conclude that judicial laughter is certainly not a sign of an empathetic attempt to equalize a hierarchical system; rather, laughter is a blood sport at the court."

According to the research, Antonin Scalia was the "most notorious humorist" for his "snark and sarcasm."

Lawyer Jokes

The takeaway is not that the Justices are good comedians, unless you like Joan Rivers or Don Rickles. They were merciless critics, but of course they're dead now.

Lawyers, if they want to survive in the courtroom, probably shouldn't use snark and sarcasm. Apparently, that's a judge's prerogative to make jokes at an attorney's expense.

Instead, use humor subtly or with an occasional exaggeration. If you can get the judge or jury to laugh with you, you'll be killing it.

Justice Merrick Garland, for example, apparently loved "My Cousin Vinny." He thought Vinny Gambini was a master of cross-examination, and a pretty funny lawyer, too.

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