Backfiring Joke in Corporations Leads to BFFs

–Law School Story from Thomas Walk, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: fall 1979

Our Corporations professor had the annoying habit of ending a lot of his sentences with the phrase “All that jazz.”

Midway through the semester, my classmate who sat immediately to the left came to class with a notepad she bought at the mall. It had musical notes floating around the pages and the “All That Jazz” phrase.  She wandered to the front of the classroom before the prof arrived and put the pad on his rostrum.

The professor walked in, examined the pad with a confused look, and laid it to one side.

Later that day I was walking through the hall and saw the All That Jazz pad lying on a couch. I picked it up.

The next day of class my classmate found in her chair the pad with the following message I printed on the top sheet:

“Ms. Jones (named changed to protect the victim), please see me after class. Professor Telly.”

I let her suffer in fear for a few minutes before I confessed I was the culprit and that she had not been busted by our prof. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Not Really a Law Student, But He Played One in Class

–From Jennifer Henson, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2005

First week of law school: Our Civil Procedure professor was affectionately known as Mad-Dog and had a reputation for scaring the 1Ls. Our Torts professor, Professor Green, on the other hand, seemed like a really nice guy. Don’t get me wrong, he did his fair share of the Socratic method but I don’t think any of us were “afraid” of him.

It was the third day of class and Torts was almost over when Prof. Green called on one last student. The student was already packing up his books. The student’s response amounted to “What?” So Prof. Green asked the student the question again. At this point I think the student responded with something to the effect of “I don’t know.”

Prof. Green launched into a tirade. “You don’t know? Didn’t you read? etc., etc.” The student was getting really flustered and stood up and shoved his Torts book over the edge of the desk and onto the floor. The whole room was staring, petrified. The student got up and headed to the door. Prof. Green told him to leave law school, leave the city, leave the state! We were all horrified. We couldn’t believe it. We were almost prepared for something like this from Mad-Dog’s class, but we all just sat shocked and couldn’t believe what had happened.

Within a few minutes Prof. Green let us in on the joke. The “student” was his son who was in graduate school somewhere else. His classes hadn’t started yet so Prof. Green had gotten him to come to class for the first three days. He told us he made his son do all of his own class prep. This kid had been answering questions in class the whole three days.

I think maybe Prof. Green had hoped he’d scare us into never being unprepared for class. We all agreed that the joke would have been funnier if he’d let it go a little longer and really led us to believe he had scared someone out of law school. But I think that would have been far too cruel to do to 1Ls. Prof. Green turned out to be a great guy.

Law Student Goes Green – Scares Others

–From Jennifer Henson, Wake Forest University School of Law, Date of event: Fall 2005

I spent a lot of my fall of 2005 semester studying in the library cubicles. One evening, during exams, I was working on a paper when out of the corner of my eye I see someone jump up and shout and scare the people at one of the nearby tables. One of the students had climbed into a large green recycling bin and had stayed in there for who knows how long before popping up and scaring the nearby students. The funny thing is that I hadn’t been more than 30 feet away for several hours and I never saw anyone climb into the bin. I guess we all end up in our own little worlds when studying for exams or drafting papers.

The Prof Always Gets the Last Laugh

–From R. Kelly Jordan, Florida International University Colleg of Law, Date of event: Fall 2004

First year Con Law at the Florida International University College of Law introduced us to Professor Thomas Baker, a serious and studious man who once served as chief administrative assistant to former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, is author of the West Nutshell book on constitutional analysis, and knows more about the U.S. Constitution than anyone I have ever met or known.

Everyone had tremendous respect for Professor Baker, and most lived in fear of being called on by him. I was no exception. However, I also have a background in theater and enjoy doing impressions of people.

The next case up to bat was U.S. v. Causby, which I had agreed beforehand to present to Professor Baker and the class. The case, which I affectionately termed “The Angry Chicken Case,” involved some military planes flying over a farm and panicking the chickens. It was a “takings” case.

I told Professor Baker that I had prepared some visual aides to help the class understand the case, and asked if I could stand at the podium. He agreed, and once up, I proceeded to present the case as Professor Baker.

For about ten minutes, I held his trademark coffee cup, scratched an invisible beard, and asked skewering questions of students who were “in on it.” Meanwhile, I flashed slides of an angry chicken, the type of military aircraft that made the chickens angry, and a geometric representation showing flight altitudes, etc., mimicking Professor Baker’s use of diagrams on the board to highlight his points.

Professor Baker was sitting in my seat the whole time, watching with quiet bemusement. When I finished, I thanked Professor Baker for the time “in his place,” and proceeded to make my way to my chair with the class roaring and clapping (I’m sure more for the distraction for than my performance).

Professor Baker said, “Not so fast Mr. Jordan. It’s my turn. Now, for my impersonation of you.” With that he leaned back in my chair, stretched his legs, tilted his head back, and pretended to go to sleep.

The class loved it.

April Fools!

–From Brian Abramson, Florida International University College of Law, Date of event: April 2003

The date was April 1st, 2003. The class was Civil Procedure, taught by Professor Foley. Despite her general Southern congeniality and wry sense of humor, Professor Foley did not tolerate students coming unprepared to class. While students were allowed to “pass” by leaving a note on the professor’s podium, being caught unprepared without having taken a pass meant an automatic drop to the next lower letter grade.

I was one of those students who volunteered frequently enough that I almost never got called on cold, but on this day I did. Professor Foley called my name and asked me stand up, as she always asks students presenting cases to do. I was expecting her to begin asking me for the facts of the next case, but once I was on my feet she said, “Mr. Abramson, please explain the meaning of the term ‘nemo turpitudendum suam allegans auditur.’”

I was completely stunned. The phrase meant absolutely nothing to me. I did not recall having ever heard or seen it before, so I stalled, asking for a moment to check my notes. The assignment for today’s class had contained an unusually large amount of non-case materials, but Professor Foley generally lectured on such materials instead of having a student present them. As I scrolled through my briefs, I asked if this was in a case.

“No,” the professor replied. “It was in the reading. You did prepare some notes on the materials for today’s class, didn’t you?”

At this point, I was absolutely mortified, certain that I had carelessly overlooked something of vital importance in the reading. I was frantically flipping through the textbook, looking for any long string of italics that would signal the presence of such a phrase.

“Yes ma’am… I just can’t find it in my notes.”

Seeming exasperated, the professor said, “Well, Mr. Abramson, sound it out. What do you think it means?” She neatly wrote the string of words on the board, and then underlined each word:

I froze for a second before I began trying to sort out the possible meaning of this strange phrase.

Since we were in the middle of a chapter dealing with juries, I finally stammered out a guess, “It means that you can’t allege something that will cause turpitude when the jury hears it?”

“Mr. Abramson, I’m very disappointed to see you so unprepared for class.” My classmates recall that at this point, my body was shaking, my face was turning red as a beet, and I looked generally dismayed.

Then, still shaking her head, Professor Foley planted her hands on her hips, let out a disappointed sigh, and said “Mr. Abramson … April Fools.”

It turned out that a committee of my classmates had approached professor Foley earlier in the week and set up the entire thing, even going so far as to find an obscure Latin legal term – one which I will for the rest of my life remember means that under the old common law of England you could not require members of a jury to testify against themselves.

I tried to get her back the next year by mocking up a CNN news report of a fake case in which the Seventh Circuit ruled that personal jurisdiction could reach anyone with Internet service. I put the mock-up in her box and enlisted three other profs to stop by her office that day to express outrage at the opinion. But she didn’t bite. She just thought CNN got the facts wrong.

Future Law Review Editor Gets Early Start

–From Casey Holland, University of Kentucky College of Law, Date of event: Fall 2003

I’m a current 1L at the University of Kentucky College of Law, and have an amusing story from my first semester. Our Torts professor, the learned Mary Davis, frequently brought up provisions of the proposed Restatement (Third) of Torts on the assumption that by the time we graduate it will have supplanted the current Restatement.

However, during class one wintry day she asked us all what the Restatement (Third) has to say about proximate cause. There was dead silence in the room, as she had never even hinted that we should read it. She began to get irritated, and asked us again if anyone could answer her question.

Sweat breaking out on our brows, even the gunners started slinking lower in their seats hoping they wouldn’t be called to task. Finally, when tension had reached its maximum, a voice rang up from the back of the class and exactly quoted the relevant portion of the Restatement.

We all turned around to see which helpful soul had saved us all from certain doom, only to find a grade school age girl with a coloring book in front of her. Our heads snapped back around and Professor Davis, now smiling, introduced us to her daughter. It seems her classes had been cancelled due to weather and the professor decided to have a little fun with us.

Courage Under Fire

–From Name withheld on request, University of Washington School of Law, Date of event: circa 1991

First semester of law school was pretty scary. We had a few profs who taught in the “you’ll be lawyers soon, so I’ll pick on you in front of everybody and force you to advocate for yourself” mentality, and it was having the desired effect of scaring the hell out of many in my class. My Torts professor was actually the dean of our school. Dorsey Ellis is his name, although he has retired as dean. His style was as follows: if he called on you, you had to stand to answer him; if you didn’t stand, he would often say “I can’t hear you.”

Once he decided which student would answer, the student would “own” the case, meaning the student would orally brief the case for everybody and answer all questions about it. The dean would call on you throughout the semester if anything related to “your case” came up in discussion. The dean was a tough, brusque guy on the outside to some, but you could tell that he was genuinely trying to train us. Truth is, he was a nice guy with an old-school style and by the end of the semester we all liked him very much. But during that first month everybody was pretty terrified of him.

The dean unknowingly aided me in this story. Three weeks into the semester, at the end of a class, I actually raised my hand and commented that something one of my classmates said related well to our next case, which was one of those classic old cases dealing with assault with a gun and whether the assailant had intent. I enjoyed the case and made the mistake of referring to it with five minutes left in class. The dean promptly said he was pleased I had volunteered to “own” the case next class, much to everyone’s amusement except mine.

The night before the next class, my section had a potluck dinner where everyone voiced their nervousness regarding school and the professors, and commented how it would be nice to turn the tables on the profs. And then the awful idea came to me to do just that—the dean had given me the opportunity by letting me know that I was “up” next class.

So I called three of my best friends in the class and told them I was planning something a little unusual for the next class. I told them I would be asking them some questions and told them what to say in response. Then I went to Walgreen’s and bought a green plastic ping-pong gun for $2.95 and plotted my insane plan.

On cue the next day, Dean Ellis began to drill me. I was scared as hell and my heart was beating hard knowing the lunacy I had planned. I sat in the back row of the large classroom. He called on me for some answer and I said something like “Dean Ellis, I’m glad you asked that question,” and started walking down the stairs toward the front.

Unbeknownst to me, on my way down the stairs the dean mumbled loudly enough for the people in the front rows to hear, “This better be good.” It was deadly silent as I ambled down front. I became more scared as it was now apparent that I had now numbed everyone in my class because they probably envisioned my murder in front of them at the hands of the dean. Thank God I hadn’t heard the dean’s comment.

But I persevered and briefed the case about one person bringing out his gun on another. At that juncture I whipped out my tacky ping-pong gun. Not looking at me, the dean said “Don’t you shoot that!” in that voice fathers use on sons when the next screw-up means big trouble. I never shot the ping-pong gun, but did manage to have some fun after that.

One of my best friends sat in the second row. I called on him, as we had scripted the night before, and asked a question. When he didn’t stand up, I said “I can’t hear you.” He promptly stood up as if the dean had said it. He was terrified that I had brought him in on my plan and looked like he had just peed in his pants.

Luckily he retained the presence of mind to answer the next question (again, as scripted) and my other two friends answered the questions I posed them. This continued for 15 minutes, during which the dean mellowed as I led the class discussion without him. Then I bounded back up the classroom stairs and it was over, although my heart kept racing until the end of the class.

I had tried my best to alleviate the terror that is “first year.” Although not everyone appreciated my “skit” at the time, by the third year it was a story that everyone liked to tell and retell. As for the dean, we bonded from that class and I always felt close to him after that. Although he seemed perturbed at the time, apparently he liked the whole thing and at graduation told me so.

I still own the ping-pong gun.

Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
Learn more...

Funny Law School Stories
For all its terror and tedium, law school can be a hilarious place. Everyone has a funny law school story. What’s your story?

Strange Judicial Opinions
Large collection of oddball and off-the-wall judicial opinions and orders.

Product Warning Labels
A variety of warning labels, some good, some silly and some just really odd. If you come encounter a funny or interesting product warning label, please send it along.

Tortman! Andrew J McClurg
Tortland collects interesting tort cases, warning labels, and photos of potential torts. Raise risk awareness. Play "Spot the Tort."

Weird Patents
Think it’s really hard to get a patent? Think again.

Legal Oddities
From the simply curious to the downright bizarre, a collection of amusing law-related artifacts.

Spot the Tort
Have fun and make the world a safer place. Send in pictures of dangerous conditions you stumble upon (figuratively only, we hope) out there in Tortland.

Legal Education
Collecting any and all amusing tidbits related to legal education.

Harmless Error
McClurg's twisted legal humor column ran for more than four years in the American Bar Association Journal.