Q: What do you call it when you have a lawyer buried up to his neck in sand?
A: Not enough sand.If Batman bounds into a Brigham Young University law school class to fight crimes against the English language, one can safely assume that the man in black is law professor James Gordon.
For several years, Gordon has used humor to help his students understand the issues involved with securities regulation, contracts, legal writing and other aspects of law. Sometimes he appears as a BYU football player in a "wimp-size" uniform to tackle verbosity; other times he becomes a doctor who performs surgery on legal writing.
His extensive use of humor also spills into his professional writing and has begun to draw attention in legal circles. In the past 12 months, five law journals have accepted his articles for publication.
Some of Gordon's writings are designed as straight humor, typified by his "How Not to Succeed in Law School," a gentle poke - albeit with a blunt instrument - at the pretensions and realities of attending law school. The article is scheduled for inclusion in the Yale Law Journal in 1991.
More often, however, Gordon's humor is found in the footnotes of serious legal documents.
In comparing the legal term "consideration" with Elvis Presley, he writes in one footnote, "Consideration is to contract law as Elvis is to rock-and-roll: the King. Revisionists, however, have questioned Elvis' greatness. They have wrestled with one disturbing issue: if Elvis is so great, how come he's buried in his own backyard - like a hamster? They address the question openly, knowing that it is legally impossible to slander a dead hamster."
When the legal concept at issue is called "inval-id consideration," Gordon lets the reader know the contradictory nature of the term in the footnote which reads, " `Invalid consideration' is an oxymoron, like legal ethics, marital bliss, military intelligence, civil war, postal service, scholar athlete, Amtrak schedule, interesting professor and Justice (insert the name of your least favorite Supreme Court justice here.)"
Or in discussing a particular problem, he writes, "However, this problem, like Wagner's music, is not as bad as it sounds. Compare bagpipe music, which is. Studies have shown that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the music of a world-class bagpipe band from the sound made by 300 cats and a blowtorch."
Rather than using humor for mere humor's sake, he sees his embellished footnotes as a way to get his legal opinions advanced.
"The humor frees me from convention and provides me with a new means of expression," he says. "With humor as an outlet, I've found a way to get my articles read. For example, professors at other law schools have made copies of some of the articles for their students. I have found more freedom to write about issues important to me if I augment them with humor."
Even when a manuscript is rejected, Gordon is likely to receive some interesting attention, such as that offered for his "How Not To Succeed in Law School" text from a member of The University of Chicago Law Review. The letter read, in part, "We have worked long and hard to establish a grim and humorless reputation, and we are not about to let you threaten it."
Gordon sees his humor allowing him a voice of reason outside traditional methods. He stands ready to jab inferior legal scholarship.
"It's proper to use humor in analyzing certain legal cases," he explains. "This year I satirized two opinions by the Supreme Court. Often the court opinions are excellent, but when they are shoddy - especially when I care about the issues - I consider them to be fair game for humor."
He does not, however, see his students that way. "I do not ever want to inflict emotional injury on any student, and on those occasions when I wonder if I have offended someone, I seek him or her out to make sure that everything is all right.
"A teacher needs to be careful and calculate the risks of humor," he adds. "In the class, I tell my students I only tease those I love, and the result is an environment that 99 times out of 100 works out well."
"To the extent that his humor keeps one interested, it's helpful," says first-year student John Rooker. "He is funny both with planned and spontaneous humor. It's never disruptive and it is enjoyable. But independent of the humor is his great teaching. I would sit in any of his classes and want to be there. He can reduce complex issues into a context to which the students can relate, and his enthusiasm demonstrates his commitment to teaching. He exceeds my expectations and is a stand-out professor."
Gordon begins his classes with a topical Johnny Carson-like monologue designed to encourage the students not only to be in class on time but also to begin listening from the moment they enter class.
He continues using humor during the lecture and explains its purpose by saying, "If humor is an active part of the class, students will want to pay attention. It also helps demonstrate the teacher's humanity to them, which can improve teacher, student relations."
Why does a hearse horse snicker hauling a lawyer away?