The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers!’’ Henry VI, W. Shakespeare

Opinion by Roberto Saco

We have a problem in America, and it has to do with change. Consider the following data. Thirty-nine percent of the members of the House of Representatives are lawyers; fifty-seven percent of our Senators are lawyers; all of our Supreme Court Justices are lawyers; thirty-two percent of our Governors are lawyers; our current VP is a lawyer; and so is our past President. And yet, attorneys comprise less than one percent of the US workforce. Some could argue, I guess, that it makes all the sense in the world for the legislative and judicial branches of government to be chock-full of lawyers.

But does it really? People trained in the law can be articulate and logical for sure, but maybe a bit too predictable in their thinking, no? Do Law Schools teach students to be creative? To be agents of change? To be future-oriented? Perhaps they should.

I have not studied the comparative numbers for other countries, but I do know that the formidable German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a Ph.D. quantum chemist. Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, is a mathematician with a long stint in the military. Early in his career, Justin Trudeau was a teacher. Simonetta Sommaruga, the Swiss President, studied music and language. The lack of professional diversity in the American political ruling class is an issue. It is true that outside of politics — in technology, business, the arts, and science — there is much greater leadership diversity. But what if we had the artists, and the scientists, and the teachers, and the technologists in Congress? What if Bill Gates were President?

Every professional discipline has professional training. It teaches its subjects to think in a certain way; they’re marked when they’re young. While life experience and family background, as well as personality and passions, all have their influence, professional training plays a crucial role in how people envision the world. So, what’s the issue?

Imagine a problem-solving session by two different groups of people, one a coterie of attorneys and the other a diverse group of professionals. Will anyone venture a guess as to the results of the session? The attorneys will come up with a neat, tidy, and logical brief on how to solve the problem. The diverse group will, of course, actually solve the problem.

Question: “What are 500 attorneys at the bottom of the ocean?” Answer: “A good beginning.”

So the old joke goes… But before anyone at this juncture accuses me of being a lawyer-basher, the point is not that people who practice the law should be unceremoniously dumped in the ocean. My point is that professional diversity in ruling classes is a good thing. The US Supreme Court has nine judges, all attorneys, which, by the way, is not a prerequisite to be a Supreme Court judge. But in addition, of the nine judges, all of them went to two Law Schools: Harvard and Yale. All of them. We can have racial, religious, and gender diversity, but what if they all think the same?

I am reminded of these structural barriers to societal change by the uncanny times we live in. We have black swans and grey swans, we have climate change and political disruption (Trump, Brexit), we have single-issue lobbies dancing around political parties, we have the promise and threat of AI, we have new, large-scale, complex problems and mediocre, almost farcical global leadership. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, we have intractable 21st-century issues being faced by 20th-century leaders.

On a personal level, I have retreated from televised news channels. I cannot bear to watch the talking heads, the know-nothings frothing at the mouth, leaders with lots of bravado and very little science, and now to boot, we’re being bombarded by the prediction game. Already politicos are talking about easing up on the lockdown. People with lots of time on their hands are using the future as a Rorschach test on which to project their own personal dreams and fantasies. “We’re going to have telemedicine in every home!” “No more commuting, as maybe half of the workforce will work from home!” “The time has finally come for online education!” “You actually go shop at a market? How quaint!” And in the meantime, of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 168 are lawyers.

Who knows what life will be like after COVID-19? Too many people are working on solutions (good!), and at the same time, too many people itch to misbehave (not good) and head to the beach for beer and volleyball. Some, rightfully, are headed to a job bank, desperately looking for a steady paycheck. These are opposing forces. What I think I know is that whatever emerges, it won’t be nice and tidy, like a lawyer’s brief.

You know, it would be grand to have telemedicine, so I won’t have to waste four hours of my time to see a doctor for a 10-minute routine check-up. For those who can, it would be great not having to commute two hours a day and to give up the payments on one of the two or three cars parked out front. Since I’m going to be at home more often, maybe it does make sense to do more things from home. The micro-changes, which could well accumulate into constellations of changes, are welcome. Many changes will happen quickly and relatively effortlessly.

Now, the hard stuff.

It seems that the more vulnerable one is, the harder this pandemic is hitting. Be it the poor, the minorities, or the elderly abandoned in nursing homes, they are suffering disproportionately. The question remains: of the plausible societies that could be, what kind of a society do we wish to be? There’s always the notion of self-interest — the tragedy of the commons — but such fragile societies simply don’t pan out. The next pandemic, with a much higher case fatality rate, could wipe out an entire country. And let us not forget climate weirding, as the weather turns more unpredictable and more violent with every passing season. As a denizen of hurricane alley in the Straits of Florida, I look forward every year to the hurricane forecast of the Colorado State University, and this year “the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Is Expected to Be More Active Than Normal.” Great. Maybe out of a need to preserve our homes — all of them, not just yours or mine — we will create a more resilient society. This would have implications regarding income inequality (lower), tax burdens (higher, possibly on the wealthier), consumption (lower), and social isolation (probably higher, at least for some populations).

I cannot help but think that we’ve been living in a bubble for too long. We have come to accept the unacceptable, like homelessness, as the cost of doing business in society. In 1816, Europe had “the year without summer.” A natural disaster the year before on the other side of the world, namely the volcanic explosion at Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, was the culprit. The eruption, known as the VEI-7 event, sent ten billion metric tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, some of which eventually traveled to Europe. Weather patterns were disrupted for months, the skies darkened, crops were decimated, and there was widespread famine. That’s the same summer Lord Byron vacationed with his bohemian posse at Lake Geneva. With horrendous weather and probably bored silly, they decided on a parlor game. All of them had one night to write a ghost story to be read the next day. Mary Shelley, a precocious 18-year old, wrote Frankenstein, or the story that later became the novel. If you do read the book, subtitled The Modern Prometheus, you will not escape the nature of the cautionary tale Mary spins for us. Our supreme arrogance, she warns, and self-contented inattention as a species promises to be our downfall. I learned all of this at a glorious exhibition a couple of years ago: “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200” at the Morgan Museum & Library on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Today, socially isolated, I wonder when I’ll ever go back to the Morgan or to any museum exhibit for that matter.

This brings us back to the lawyers.

You see, micro-changes also require macro movements. We will require big and bold structural changes. And we cannot rely on structures designed for the 19th or 20th century to hold up very well in the fluidities of today. Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish philosopher and author of Liquid Modernity, has said: “Real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you.” Or, I may add, who think the same way as you. If it’s simply too hard to redesign our institutions, like Congress with its too many lawyers, then we may have to harness our political imagination to create new ones.