Ethical Spectacle, July 1997

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers" - it's a lawyer joke

Seth Finkelstein
July 1997

Few people are unfamiliar with the phrase The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers. Rueful, mocking, it often expresses the ordinary person's frustration with the arcana and complexity of law. Sometimes it's known that the saying comes from one of Shakespeare's plays, but usually there's little awareness beyond that. This gap in knowledge has inspired a myth of "correction", where it is "explained" that this line is really intended as a praise of the lawyer's role.

For example, one legal firm states:

"The first thing we do," said the character in Shakespeare's Henry VI, is "kill all the lawyers." Contrary to popular belief, the proposal was not designed to restore sanity to commercial life. Rather, it was intended to eliminate those who might stand in the way of a contemplated revolution -- thus underscoring the important role that lawyers can play in society.

(from Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky LLP Firm Profile)


As the famous remark by the plotter of treachery in Shakespeare's King Henry VI shows - "The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers," - the surest way to chaos and tyranny even then was to remove the guardians of independent thinking.


The argument of this remark as in fact being favorable to lawyers is a marvel of sophistry, twisting of the meaning of words in an unfamiliar source, disregard of the evident intent of the original author, and ad hominem attack. Whoever first came up with this interpretation surely must have been a lawyer.

The line is actually uttered by a character "Dick The Butcher". While he's a killer as evil as his name implies, he often makes highly comedic and amusing statements. The wisecracking villain is not an invention of modern action movies, it dates back to Shakespeare and beyond.

The setup for the "kill the lawyers" statement is the ending portion of a comedic relief part of a scene in Henry VI, part 2 (act 4, scene 2, in specific). Dick and another henchman, Smith are members of the gang of Jack Cade, a pretender to the throne. The build-up is long portion where Cade makes vain boasts, which are cut down by sarcastic replies from the others. For example:

Valiant I am.

SMITH [aside].
'A must needs; for beggary is valiant.

I am able to endure much.

DICK [aside].
No question of that; for I have seen him whipp'd three market-days together.

I fear neither sword nor fire.

SMITH [aside].
He need not fear the sword; for his coat is of proof.

DICK [aside].
But methinks he should stand in fear of fire, being burnt i' th'hand for stealing of sheep.

You can almost hear the rim-shot after everything Dick or Smith say here.

Cade proceeds to go more and more over the top, and begins to describe his absurd ideal world:

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hoop'd pot shall have ten hoops; and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king,- as king I will be,-

God save your majesty!

Appreciated and encouraged, he continues on in this vein:

I thank you, good people:- there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

And here is where Dick speaks the famous line.

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

The audience must have doubled over in laughter at this. Far from "eliminating those who might stand in the way of a contemplated revolution" or portraying lawyers as "guardians of independent thinking", it's offered as the best feature imagined of yet for utopia. It's hilarious. A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be "When I'm the King, there'll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot" "AND NO LAWYERS". It's a clearly lawyer-bashing joke. This is further supported by the dialogue just afterwards (which is actually quite funny even now, and must have been hilarious when the idiom was contemporary):

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

Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.- How now! who's there?

He might just as well have been describing "shrink-wrap" software licensing agreements today in the last sentence. To understand what Cade is saying here, you have to know that documents of the time were likely parchment, and sealed with wax. So when he says "Some say the bees stings; but I say, 'tis the bee's wax". he's making an ironic comment somewhat akin to "Some men rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen". And the fact that he himself is an evil man only serves to heighten the irony, not discredit the sentiment - the more evil he is, the more the contrast is apparent.

It makes as much sense to conclude that since the "kill the lawyers" joke is expressed by villains, who later commit murderous deeds "there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score" is an approval of Libertarian thought, and a warning about Communists.

Now, just after this exchange, the scene changes tone. The gang commits the murder of the clerk of Chatham. Here is the second level of Shakespeare's commentary on law and layers, where the murder is carried out according to scrupulous procedure, a parody of law:

I am sorry for't: the man is a proper man, of mine honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die.- Come hither, sirrah, I must examine thee: what is thy name?

By this contrast Shakespeare thus makes in an alternating, connected, comedic and tragic manner, the age-old point about the difference between law (and those who argue it) and justice. Cade makes up his "version" of law to his own ends, to the justification of his evil deeds, which is reminiscent of the context which commonly provokes "kill the lawyers" (where the phrase is in wry protest of actions thought to be the same in form, if not in degree). Far from being "out of context", the usage is more true to the original than most people know.

Now, compares this to the description given by the web page Lawyers are Our Friends!

Cade's friend Dick the Butcher, being only barely smarter than Cade, knew Cade's scheme could not succeed if the learned advisors to the real King actually investigated Cade's lineage. So, Dick the Butcher advised Cade that "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," hoping that this tactic would prevent Cade from being discovered as an imposter. At least in Shakespeare's time, lawyers were regarded as the protectors of truth.

That lawyer is being a protector of some sort, but it doesn't seem to be of the truth!

In fact, Shakespeare used lawyers as figures of derision on several occasions. In "Romeo and Juliet", Mercutio uses the line "O'er lawyers' fingers, who straight dream on fees;" (act 1, scene 4). In "King Lear", the fool defends a speech in riddles by comparing it to an "unfee'd lawyer" (act 1, scene 4):

This is nothing, fool.

Then 'tis like the breath of an unfee'd lawyer,- you gave me nothing for't.- Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?

There's a very long and lawyer-uncomplimentary passage in Hamlet. Note the similarity of the "parchment" joke to that seen in Henry VI, part 2.

There's another: why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?

Not a jot more, my lord.

Is not parchment made of sheep-skins?

Ay, my lord, and of calf-skins too.

They are sheep and calves which seek out assurance in that. I will speak to this fellow.- Whose grave's this, sirrah?

As long as there are lawyers, there will be "lawyer jokes". And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.

Seth Finkelstein is a software developer and Internet activist.