Using Legal Humor: Lawyer Joke Telling & Negotiation Activity

Using legal humor in class can be an extremely potent tool. It can also be a minefield as humor often does not travel well across cultures. When not well employed in a classroom, it can devolve into a painful over-explanation of a joke to blank and unsympathetic faces. (I speak from experience.)

But when done right, it can provide a high level of student engagement as well as unique opportunities for vocabulary improvement, language teaching, reading and speaking fluency, paraphrasing, and building of background knowledge and cultural awareness.

One activity that we like to use as an early semester ice-breaker and discussion prompt for American legal culture is a lawyer joke-telling and negotiation exercise. We break up the class into pairs and give each pair a copy of a different lawyer joke. In pairs, the students read through their joke for understanding and then practice reading or saying it to each other while the teacher circulates and assists with comprehension and pronunciation as needed.

Next, the students are told to mingle with each other and tell and listen to each others’ jokes. They are given a chart to identify each joke and write down comments or reactions to each joke. Once joke-telling time is up, students sit down with their partners and discuss the jokes. Specifically, they must reach agreement as to which joke was the best joke and why. Once they do that, they join with another pair and must discuss and decide–as a group of four–which was the best joke and why. And finally, they are asked as a whole class to discuss, decide, and reach agreement on one joke as the “best” joke.

One thing I’ve also found works well is to stay out of the discussion, especially if they’re having trouble reaching agreement, and leave them space to work out their own resolution. One of the benefits is that not only are they using English to negotiate, they are engaged in negotiation of meaning–an important language acquisition concept–as they work to make themselves understood, often in specific or nuanced ways.

And of course, the students henceforth will be familiar with and understand any references made in the future regarding those lawyer jokes and their implications.

Bonus activity: Subsequent to the negotiation, you can engage students in a discussion of the Constitution and U.S. legal authority by asking students about the source of “legal authority” for their final decision.

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