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Using humor in your law practice

Humor can break the ice in negotiations, relieve tension during a trial and make you a better lawyer, according to criminal defense attorney and stand-up comedian Kenny Kahn.

When he’s not in court in Los Angeles, he can be found on stage in Las Vegas sharing true stories about defending Larry Flynt for wearing an American flag as a diaper to court.

Kahn had developed a following among his colleagues and court personnel. That’s why he can get away with addressing some judges, “Good Morning, Your Horror.”

Kahn believes every lawyer can benefit from making people laugh. To that end, he has begun touring law schools to lecture students on how to use humor in the law.

“My message is: It’s OK not to take everything so seriously. It’s OK to say things that are off the wall, because it only increases your humanity,” Kahn told Lawyers Weekly USA.

Kahn is talking to law students because he wants to reach young lawyers before it’s too late to reverse the stuffiness.

“There’s a feeling we’re in such a serious profession. We’ve been so stodgy for so many years. Many people do have an innate sense of humor they manage to put aside so they appear to be serious lawyers and will be taken seriously,” he said.

His two-hour seminars incorporate his own anecdotes and jokes about the colorful array of “cops, judges, lawyers, criminal clients and cases” he’s encountered in his three decades of practice.

He also tells law students that a sense of humor can not only make practicing law less stressful, but it can help improve relations with adversaries, ingratiate you with a jury, and put clients at ease.

“I give students all sorts of different ways of looking at the law, plus I give them a lot of good material. I tell them to begin to test their own sense of humor and how to tell stories, because so much of law is the art of storytelling,” Kahn said.

He likens a lawyer’s sense of humor to a doctor’s bedside manner.

“We need to have the ability to make clients feel comfortable. That’s what humor is for. There’s so much hostility in the law. Everybody is used to being nasty, which means acting like a pit bull. People take adversarial to mean hostile; it’s almost built in to the practice of law. When you’re done gunning [your adversary] down, then you kick him; when you’re done kicking him, you kick his dog…

“We’ve overlooked something really, really critical – the possibility of incorporating humor into our practice and creating an atmosphere in which it’s easier to communicate because you’re seen as a more approachable person, easier to talk to, friendlier. Laughter creates an atmosphere in which things can get done in a humane manner,” he said.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been able to get a better deal simply by relaxing the atmosphere with a joke,” he added.

Asked how he manages to weave humor into a weighty criminal defense practice, Kahn responded that he appeals to the “realm of the extreme and ridiculous.”

In the middle of plea negotiations over the length of prison time, for example, Kahn said he might suggest settling the case by “having the judge pull out an AK47 and execute my client at the counsel table.”

“I believe in capital punishment,” he deadpanned. “If you don’t execute people, how else are you going to teach them a lesson?”

Kahn decided to take up comedy in 1987, after a client stabbed him with an ice pick in court.

“He was a nice man who had not taken his medication. The ice pick came within a quarter of an inch of my lung,” Kahn recalled. “I like to say he was going for my heart, but the heart of a criminal defense lawyer is a very small, little thing.”

The near-death experience convinced Kahn that “if I had things in this world that I wanted to do, I better get on with it.”

He signed up for a stand-up comedy workshop, and his material bloomed into a regular act that Kahn has performed in comedy clubs in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York.

Now, he boasts, some judges won’t let him leave their courtroom without telling a joke.

Kahn is currently lecturing at California law schools and plans to take his seminar national next year.

Website: www.kennykahn.com

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: shsieh@lawyersweekly.com

Muslim Lawyer Makes Comedy Meaningful

Azhar Usman has taken the sobering combination of being an attorney and a Muslim after September 11 and turned it into a laughing matter.

Usman, a Chicago attorney, spends his days behind a desk and his evenings in front of a microphone performing stand-up comedy and, he hopes, opening some minds.

He arrives on stage looking the part – his bushy black beard and black kufi (a round Muslim cap) accenting his burly frame – and immediately sets out to challenge the audience reaction with humor.

“I want to make one thing clear. I am not Osama Bin Laden’s evil twin brother,” he tells his audience. “I’m his cousin – they call me Bin Laughin’.”

His stand-up act focuses on post-9/11 life, ethnic stereotyping and observations about daily experiences as an American Muslim.

“This has become a passion for me. It’s a creative outlet, but of course I’m also troubled that at this time people associate Muslims with horrible, negative things,” he told Lawyers Weekly USA.

Usman takes his stand-up act as seriously as his other professional endeavors.

At 27, the young lawyer has already owned a start-up dot.com, opened a solo law firm, and now provides business development and in-house legal advice for a tech company.

In early 2001, between his entrepreneurial ventures, Usman managed to take a few cracks at his long-time hobby by entering open-mike contests in local spots around Chicago.

But September 11 brought all that to a halt.

“My heart wasn’t into it,” said Usman, who stopped performing for six months. “I didn’t feel like telling jokes. I just did a lot of soul searching and spending time with my family.”

Instead, he focused his energies into community activism, joining interfaith discussions at churches, temples and mosques nearly every day.

“I had to get out and do public speaking in a more serious way. These forums popped up everywhere, and there was a tremendous demand for speakers on Islam,” said Usman, a Chicago native whose parents emigrated from India.

By the following year, Muslim comics who had found their shows cancelled were gradually being invited back on stage.

Usman, who majored in communications as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recognized that comedy could be a sophisticated form of communication to demystify his religion and counteract stereotypes.

Now he’s back in front of the mike, trying to improve the public perception of Islam and Muslims through comedy.

In one skit, he mimics a new convert. “You sure this thing is called Islam? I can’t drink, I can’t be with girls, I can’t even eat a ham sandwich. It should be called Is-hard.”

Start-Up Lawyer

By the time he was a 3L at the University of Minnesota Law School, Usman knew two things: He wanted to start a dot.com, and he had developed a burning desire to perform stand-up comedy.

“By early 1999, we had secured commitment for seed funding – about $240,000, which at that time was a huge amount of money,” said Usman.

Around the same time, a law school classmate who was an amateur comedian invited Usman to watch him and others perform at a local open-mike competition.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is really cool. There’s nothing special about them – I can do that, too,'” he said.

After law school, at the height of the dot.com frenzy, Usman and a partner founded the start-up company – a website to attract online customers to banks, credit card companies, brokerage firms and other financial services companies.

“We created a set of decision-making tools to decide which vendor was best for [an investor’s] needs. Every time an investor filled out an application form, we’d get a referral fee,” he said.

Over the next two years, the venture ended up attracting $3 million in investment money and grew to employ 35 people. The company was featured in the Wall Street Journal and Kiplinger’s, and attracted a high-profile CEO to head the company.

But soon after the publicity swelled, the dot.com bubble burst, and Usman was unable to get the next round of financing.

He sold the company to Providian Financial for a seven-figure sum in April 2001.

While juggling a transition to a solo law practice – one which advised small companies on corporate matters and individuals on trust and estate planning, including drafting wills that conform to Islamic law – Usman continued to cultivate his interest in comedy and began writing his own material.

Always the class clown, Usman was used to telling jokes, but stand-up was a different animal.

“It’s a very sophisticated art. Stand-up is different than formula jokes. I was very intimidated at first; you have to do a lot of talking about yourself,” he said.

Even before 9/11, Usman’s main theme focused on his experiences as an American Muslim, which he said “defines me in a lot of ways.”

His big break came in July 2002, when he performed in Dallas at a Muslim fundraising event.

Concerned about the blacklisting of Muslim charities and the “chilling effect” on contributions to them, Usman contacted the organizers of an event for Islamic Relief, a charity that was cleared by the U.S. government as a legal charity.

The 45-minute spot they gave him was more than enough time to make people laugh – and to become a story in the Dallas Morning News.

After that, he said, “the interest fueled the hype and the hype fueled the interest,” leading to other gigs and positive reviews by the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph of London and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Usman used his web business background to publicize his comedic rise.

“I had already been an Internet dork to begin with,” he said. “I had purchased www.azhar.com (his first name) and was sitting on it. I decided it was a good opportunity to put up my own website.”

Usman also got help from his wife, also an attorney, who now manages his comedy career.

‘Smart, Clean, Hilarious’

Usman describes his brand of humor as “smart, clean and hilarious” – insightful, G-rated, and, of course, funny.

His website calls it “comedy of distortion” – a form of social satire using observations about daily life to straighten out ethnic and religious distortions by the media and the larger society.

Muslims “get blamed for stuff we didn’t even do,” he joked in one sketch, recalling that after the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, reporters stood outside the wreckage pointing out “Middle Eastern characteristics” of the bombing.

“Oh, really?” he feigns. “Was there some belly dancing music in the background? The bombing was supposed to happen at 3 o’clock, but they showed up at around 6:30? That’s a Middle Eastern characteristic.”

Other targets of his satire are the lack of diversity in the voice-over industry, the criminal justice system and media sensationalism

“I hope my comedy is smart, that it starts making you think. It’s a way of humanizing what goes on behind closed doors. I think, to non-Muslims, a mosque is very mysterious structure. I think they’re disturbed our minarets look like missiles,” he joked.

“My message to non-Muslims is: Our community has the same problems as everyone else,” such as cell phones going off during prayer, double-parked cars and apathy in electing board members, he said.

Although Usman doesn’t consider himself to be a political comic, he does include jokes about being followed by the FBI, the Patriot Act, and mimics “little Johnny Ashcroft” as a playground bully.

As a lawyer, Usman is accustomed to legal boundaries, including Islamic proscriptions on humor.

“I pride myself on working clean. I love clean comedy, and, as a Muslim, there are reasons for doing so,” he said.

Cursing and sexual innuendo are obviously disallowed.

But he also steers clear of backbiting others, joking about religion, or other material that might compromise his monotheism, such as jokes that anthropomorphize God or that question what’s within the “divine realm.”

On occasion, Usman has consulted Islamic legal scholars if he thinks his material might cross the line, such as a joke in which one of his characters, Sheikh Abdul the Radical Imam, refers to George W. Bush as a “dog.”

Usman, who tweaks legal arguments by day and polishes delivery of his punch lines by night, has even written an article called, “Jihad of the Joke: Humor and Comedy In Light of Islamic Teachings.”

“God is the one that causes man to weep and to laugh,” he said, quoting the Koran. “Humor is part of Islam. Laughter is part of what makes us human.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: shsieh@lawyersweekly.com