Stop me if you've heard this one: A lawyer, minister, and politician are in a lifeboat struggling to get ashore , when they run into a school of sharks. The lawyer says ''I'll go for help.'' He jumps into the water, swims through the sharks, and returns with the Coast Guard.
''That was incredible,'' remarked the minister and the politician to the lawyer. ''But why did the sharks move out of your way?''
''Professional courtesy,'' he replied.
In this contentious country of ours, lawyers are one of the nation's most maligned, joked about, elites. Anthropologists muse that Americans shake law suits at each other the way primitive tribes shake spears. And the more spear shakers, the merrier. In the last two decades alone, the number of lawyers in the US has doubled.
Lawyers have become operators of the toll bridge that we all cross in search of justice. The cost of legal services now accounts for 2 percent of the nation's gross national product, more than the steel industry. Per capita, the United States now has three times the number of lawyers in Great Britain, 44 times the lawyers in Japan (where flower arrangers outnumber lawyers). Litigious Los Angeles County, has more judges than all of France.
* Nolo Press, the nation's largest self-help law publishing company, calculates there are 574,000 lawyers in the US and another 116,000 would-be lawyers in law school. With characteristic wit and foresight, Nolo recently published a tongue-in-cheek handbook entitled ''29 Reasons Not to Go to Law School.''
The books guarantees to ''save you three years, $30,000, and your sanity'' and is peppered with lighthearted chapter titles, such as ''The Lawyer's First Commandment: Keep those Fees Up!'' and ''Stare Decisis (follow precedent), or You'll Wonder Where the Future Went When You Solve Each Case With Precedent.''
''29 Reasons'' points out that while 9 out of 10 medical-school graduates enter the medical profession, only 5 out of 10 law graduates practice law. The extraordinary competition among lawyers, the book says, guarantees a ''gridlock in a traffic jam of stalled careers.'' It concludes that ''three years is a long time to train for unemployment.''
The goal of ''29 Reasons,'' - and, in part, Nolo Press - its authors say, is ''to stick pins into the plump balloons of legal training and practice. . . .''
''We happily plead guilty to excessive enthusiasm,'' says Ralph Warner and Toni Ihara, the dropout lawyers who run Nolo and together wrote ''29 Reasons'' while vacationing on a beach in Thailand.
Warner is a founding father of Nolo, which is short for nolo contendere, or ''I do not choose to enter a plea.'' More simply put, it means ''I do not choose ,'' an attitude taken by many of Nolo's lawyers who shun lucrative traditional legal careers. Instead they are writing and publishing $10 and $20 sue-it-yourself law books on everything from landlord-tenant disputes to partnerships, and they are saving their readers from the bother and bucks of having to hire an attorney at $100 an hour.
Nolo was started 12 years ago with assets of $3,000. America's recent boom in legal self-counseling, prompted in part by inflated legal fees and the tarnished reputation of attorneys after Watergate, was good to Nolo. The company has published more than 35 titles, ranging from ''California Tenants' Handbook'' (now going into its 14th printing) to the newest hit, ''Legal Care for Your Software,'' which is being translated for a Japanese edition.
This year Nolo will do an expected $1.1 million in business, a whopping 26 percent increase in sales over last year. Several years ago Nolo began publishing a quarterly newsletter which, according to Warner, ''comes out three times a year.'' It also now offers ''Saturday morning law school'' classes in its offices in an old converted West Berkeley clock factory.
* Under a second-floor skylight, Ihara was pasting up a book-cover layout on her light table. From the far corner soft steady bleeps emanate from a word processor. ''The material we dealt with humorously in (''29 Reasons'') has everything to do with why Nolo got started in the first place,'' Ihara said.
It was made up, she added, ''mostly of disenchanted lawyers from the '60s who were out to change the world and thought they could do it through the civil rights movement and winning Supreme Court cases. They burned out after three years of legal-aid work, frustrated after going through case after case and seeing no social change.''
Ihara is an anthropologist and folklorist with a law degree from the University of California at Davis. While working in an East Oakland legal-aid office in the mid-'70s, she discovered that ''attorneys spend most of their time pulling out the forms book and filling in the blanks. Everything is already worded and numbered for them. Secretaries do the bulk of the work, which means pulling together forms. A good legal secretary is worth 10 attorneys.''
Whenever possible, said Ihara, Nolo tries to strip away the myth and mystery from the legal process. ''Our books sell so well because our premise is that anyone who has gone to high school and can read can perform the basic legal procedures for things such as name changes, divorces, partnerships, or tenant-landlord disputes. Nolo's approach now is that if enough people get involved in the process of the law, something might change. We're careful, however,'' she added, ''to warn people about tricky areas, such as torts, community property, and personal injuries. That can involve a lot of money, and often it's best to see a lawyer in those cases.
''For some reason America is the most litigious society in the world. There is something in society that craves the old Perry Mason sense of justice,'' Ihara said. ''Society is skeptical of the lawyer and yet also admires his shrewdness, similar to the role of the coyote'' in native-American culture.
Like a fox, Warner prowled the Nolo offices in search of a sweet roll in the lobby, or better yet a sack of chocolate-chip cookies in the desk drawer of his marketing director and co-conspirator, Charlotte Johnson.
Jake, as Warner is known to friends and staff, is an indefatigable editor with a sweet tooth and a reputation for demanding a half-dozen revisions of submitted manuscripts. He never learned to type, and he scribbles all his notes on yellow legal pads.
Warner wears jeans and running shoes to the office and is a third-generation lawyer. His father works on Wall Street. Jake graduated from Princeton in the middle of the civil rights movement and saw law school as his passport to a crusade against social injustice. He attended Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, coincidentally graduating in the same class as two attorneys indicted during the Watergate scandal. He subsequently was employed as a federal judge's assistant and then worked as a legal-aid attorney for several years in a Richmond ghetto, 20 minutes north of San Francisco.
''I never considered practicing law,'' Warner said, surrounded by his office cactuses. ''I always saw it as a vehicle for social change. But I burned out after 31/2 years of legal aid. From looking at our waiting room back then, you could see that the vast portion of people were not being served by the American legal system. Two out the 3 people who came through the door were poor, but not officially below the poverty level, so we couldn't help them. We had to send them out to street-corner lawyers who ripped them off with high fees when usually all it took was a legal secretary shuffling some papers.
''Eventually I just dropped out of law. Believe it or not, I began taking ballet lessons. I actually performed with an improvisational dance company on and off for four or five years.'' During that period, when Warner was prancing about in his leotard ''trying to figure out what next,'' the notion of Nolo and self-help law books was spawned.
Warner said he and other legal-aid friends began to ponder: ''Why is there such a complicated system of rules to pass property within a family? Why does it take 27 pieces of paper and dancing through a legal courthouse maze for normal transfer of property?
''If you go into a court to do your own divorce, before you can clear your throat the judge throws Black's Law Dictionary at you. Why do lawyers say 'pendente lite' when they mean 'a temporary order' or 'nunc pro tunc' when they mean 'we made a clerical error and we're going to fix it?'
''It's to their advantage not to speak plain English. Lawyers are constantly pleasing themselves by offering up gobbledygook to show something others don't know. The effect is to deny others the right to participate in the system of justice. And that's part of basic democracy.''
According to Warner, the New York and California Legislature and other states have recently passed ''clear-language laws to assure that statutes are written in terms the average person can understand.''
Joe Matthews wrote Nolo's ''Sourcebook for Older Americans'' with his mother, Dorothy Berman, director of a senior-citizen center in the San Fernando Valley. ''My mother would always say: 'Stop being a lawyer and put it in language that real people can understand. Give examples so people can see what you're talking about, and keep your sense of humor.''
'It turns out many of the government pamphlets for older people were out of date, and those that weren't people couldn't understand anyway,'' Matthews said. ''My mother said: 'Think positively when you're writing for older people. Let them know they don't face an ordeal, but a problem that can be solved. Let them know they can do it themselves.' I get great satisfaction seeing people walk up the courthouse steps with a Nolo book under their arms.''
In a front office that day sat Dennis Clifford, the attorney who wrote ''Plan Your Estate'' and co-authored ''The Partnership Book,'' with Jake Warner. Clifford was in appropriate Nolo business attire: jeans, an embroidered workshirt, and tennis shoes.
''Why did I go to law school in the first place? Because I didn't want to write a PhD dissertation. I spent several years in legal services, disillusioned. The notion of spending my life in downtown skyscrapers dressed like I was going to a funeral and charging for my time by the 10th of the hour didn't seem like much fun. I'm not a combative person. I had enough of that when I was a kid. At least in book publishing nobody shouts at you.''
With that, he rested his case - and left on vacation.