Roger writing the LAWmag

The Mass Murder and Lawyer Jokes

One of the worst days ever in the history of the practice of law had as its genesis a routine commercial real estate transaction. Early nineties, California: Gian Luigi Ferri invested $1.9-million of his own money, along with foreign investors, in purchasing four Midwest mobile home parks from Basic American Industry  of Indiana.

To complete the deal, Ferri hired the San Francisco law firm of Pettit & Martin at 101 California Street.

The value of the mobile home project soon tanked, mostly because of  the economic depression which hit the United States in the early 1980s.

Ferri went back to Pettit & Martin to see if he could recover damages from his business partners. The law firm referred him to an Indianapolis law firm with whom Ferri eventually recovered about $1-million.

Ferri  reinvested the smaller amount again and again. But he kept losing money on every round of investments.

By 1993 his business, ADF Mortgage and Realty, had gone bankrupt. He was in arrears with the American tax authority, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Ferri had put on a lot of weight and he was facing eviction from his apartment on Erwin Street in Woodland Hills, California.

Gian Luigi FerriUnder considerable financial stress, Gian Ferri was probably severely depressed and he began to suffer delusions as he replayed his business failures over and over again in his mind. Increasingly paranoid, he came to believe that the thieves and robbers that had stolen  everything from him was that law firm ... Pettit & Martin.

The 55-year old Ferri drove to Las Vegas, Nevada and bought handguns. On his way back, he stopped in the Mojave Desert and practiced using the pistols, as well as  writing a long rambling grievance against the law firm, that he had been "raped" by Pettit & Martin. His letter added:

"When you hire a consultant or an attorney you don't hire for the purpose of getting raped and than having all your efforts toward legal recourse totally thwarted by a corrupt legal system of 'esquires'. Esquires in the dark ages roamed the countryside to steel from the working people and give to the prince. Do attorney want us to call them esquires because their allegiance is to the monarchy?"

On Thursday, July 1, 1993, Ferri put on his best suit and drove to 101 California Street. There, he abandoned his car and  rode up the elevator to the 34th floor and the lobby of Pettit & Martin. He exited the elevator, put on ear protectors and began walking through the corridors shooting indiscriminately, eventually emptying his pistols.

The carnage lasted 15 minutes. Eight people were murdered before Ferri took his own life as police had him cornered in a stairwell.

It was the worst mass murder in San Francisco history.

Dead was Allen Berk, a 52-year-old partner of the firm.

Another lawyer, Jack Berman, 36-year old, had the misfortune of being on the premises even though he was not an employee of the law firm. He was a former president of the American Jewish Congress and he too was dead from bullet wounds. Berman was there accompanying his client and plaintiff Jody Sposato who was giving a deposition in the Pettit Martin boardroom (she was suing a Texas company for sex discrimination and wrongful termination).  She too was killed.

Legal secretary Deborah Fogel,  only 33 years old, was gunned down as was labor law attorney John Scully, 28. The gunmen surprised Scully and his wife Michelle, another lawyer, having lunch. Scully had just enough time to throw himself on his wife. He died shielding her and although she was injured, she survived. The bullet entry wounds on his body were in his back.

Also murdered was David Sutcliffe, a 30-year-old law student.

After the massacre, Pettit & Martin tried as best they could to recover and put back the pieces of their shattered law firm.  They left Berk's office untouched for a year as a memorial.

But eventually, after a few years, the firm disbanded.

The mass killings had two consequences. Greater gun control legislation was brought in by the federal government.

The other reaction was bizarre and could not have been anticipated.

Six days after the shootings, the president of the State Bar of California, Harvey Saferstein convened a press conference. Saferstein predictably offered condolences to the aggrieved families and harshly condemned the attacks.

But then he began a bizarre tirade against lawyer jokes, as if the  prevalence of lawyer jokes in society had somehow caused the deaths of his colleagues at the bar.

It was a surreal press conference.  "People must stop telling  lawyer jokes," Saferstein remarked adding that lawyer-bashing was:

"... as heinous as all forms of bigotry. There's a point at which jokes and humor are acceptable in a point at which they become nothing more than hate speech.... I call on  all Americans to stop the lawyer-bashing  that has been going on, particularly by national, commercial sponsors, that sometimes can ignite violence and aggression toward lawyers.... While jokes have their place, accepting or inviting violence against attorneys is no longer funny."

Then he suggested that a law be passed that made lawyer-bashing jokes illegal!

Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, as media comment was highly critical . Lawyer-joke repeat offender and television comedian Jay Leno remarked:

"I will have to consult with my attorney but I was under the impression that one did have the right to free speech."

The editor of California Lawyer magazine, Ray Reynolds was even more outspoken:

"Harvey's comments are the ultimate lawyer joke -  asking that lawyers be singled out for special treatment."

For a brief period of time, in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy, the subject of lawyer jokes was actually and seriously examined.

Many lawyer jokes are beyond funny and instead suggest an intense hatred of the profession:

  • How do you get a lawyer out of a tree? You cut the rope.
  • How do you save a lawyer from drowning? Take your foot off his head.

Academia weighed in with this psychological babble:

  • Most people dislike lawyers;
  • The funniest jokes appear to be those that disparage persons (lawyers) to whom the listener feels inferior;
  • Since ethnic and cultural jokes are no longer politically correct, people need other targets and the ubiquitous lawyer is very convenient;
  • The ethics of some lawyers (eg. those engaged in ambulance chasing), fuels the fires of lawyer jokes;
  • Ethics and the law seem oxymoronic as far as lawyers go as the general public is unaware of the role lawyers play in the apparatus of justice;
  • Lawyer jokes are a natural reaction to the amount of money lawyers charge; and
  • Many people are drawn unwillingly into lawsuits and they blame the personification of it: the lawyers.

The reality is lawyer jokes and  hostility towards the profession is as old as the Bible where, at Luke 11:47-49, Jesus leans into a bunch of church law elders:

"Woe unto you lawyers!"

Shakespeare was well known for his script in Henry the VIth:

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

Some commentators are deeply concerned about the prevalence of lawyer jokes:

"It is too easy to dismiss lawyer jokes as harmless humor, and too easy to assume that egos are all that is threatened. Lawyer jokes, whatever their cause, are far more than mere humor. They reflect both deep problems in the legal profession, and a broad public disillusionment. A society that can laugh at itself is a healthy one, but a society that laughs at the very things which give it meaning is committing cultural suicide. Lawyers are guardians of more than their egos and their clients. They are guardians of the law, for they are the ones who craft it, guide it, and carry it into execution. A society that has lost its respect for the legal profession is one that is fast losing its respect for the law."1

A Bit Too Much

Whatever meaning is underneath the prevalence of lawyer jokes, lawyers have a responsibility for it. If there is a tide to turn, only lawyers can turn it.

"If we are to learn something useful and redeeming from the massacre at Pettit & Martin, we need to seek some meaning in what otherwise appears to be meaningless carnage. The fact is that the legal profession itself has encouraged the notion that lawyers are ruthless mercenaries who seek victory at any price. It is an image that attorneys use to psychological advantage-both to intimidate adversaries and to attract clients. At the same time, the very way in which attorneys present themselves is designed to inspire fear and loathing.....

"Attorneys ought to pay more attention to the disturbing messages they are sending to the world when they display the bullying and menacing behavior that has come to be associated with what was once regarded as a learned profession."2

At the end of the day, lawyers had better have broad shoulders if they want to retain the substantial privilege they enjoy in society, that of charging considerable hourly fees for the representation of individuals involved in the establishment of their legal rights.

If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen.

One of the favorite sources and audiences of lawyer jokes are lawyers themselves.

That's because tasteful lawyer jokes promote a rapprochement between the general public and the daunting and intimidating facade of the law generally and of lawyers specifically.

Lawyer jokes which are mean and ill-spirited cross that line and are simply not funny.

The lawyer joke debate deflected the attention of San Franciscans from the tragedy of that July 1 day, a tragedy which is inexplicable as any heinous crime caused by mental illness.

It had nothing to do with lawyer jokes.

Like lichen growing on tundra, small good things came eventually came of the 101 California Street massacre. One was symbolized in a subsequent headline:

California Enacts the Toughest Ban of Assault Guns

And the California Young Lawyers Association remembered their colleague by creating the Jack Berman award:

"... to recognize the substantial achievements of a young lawyer."

REFERENCES:

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