Maybe lawyers are what’s missing from our government

Maybe lawyers are what’s missing from our government
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It’s hardly controversial to suggest that, at the moment, the federal government isn’t looking at all that it is capable of governing. The White House is often described as a revolving door in terms of staffing, given how frequently President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE seems to be firing his own staff. Congress is likely to pass the fewest number of bills in forty years, and the threat of government shutdown is ever present.

More broadly, Congress working together has come to seem almost entirely infeasible. Gone are the days of sweeping, bipartisan legislation such as McCain-Feingold and the majority of the most impactful legislation of the last fifty years. Even teenagers shouting at rallies that their right to live should outweigh the right to bear arms hasn’t led to unity, let alone even one gun regulation.

One reason for this might be the dwindling number of lawyers in government. In the 1800s, 80 percent of Congress was comprised of lawyers; the percentage dropped to 60 percent by 1960 and is now less than 40 percent. Only two of our last seven presidents had law degrees, though of our forty-five presidents, twenty-five were lawyers.


As a professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, the lessons we teach students about what it means to be a lawyer are precisely the types of lessons useful in government, and the fact that the government does not include as many attorneys as it used to could be having a significant impact on the decline in effective governance. In particular, there are three characteristics of good lawyers that, coincidentally or not, are characteristics missing from government right now.

First, being a good lawyer means being a good negotiator. Portrayals of attorneys on television potentially mislead the public into thinking lawyers are all about big business, big arguments, or big moral failings. But good lawyers know that the best outcomes for clients are ones that make all parties happy. That’s why about 95 percent of civil lawsuits end in settlement, not verdicts.

Second, and perhaps even more important, lawyers understand how the past shapes the future. Our legal system is all about precedent; we interpret the Constitution, statutes, and the common law through cases, and unless there’s good reason to go against what courts have held in the past, judges honor the decisions that came before and use them to shape what will happen in future cases.

Finally, nuance matters. President Obama recognized this, and ultimately his ability to see and explain the complexities of difficult issues served him well in office, such as in the praise he received for being able to both craft and articulate a complicated counterterrorism strategy. It’s not hard to imagine what he might have accomplished with a Congress that shared his appreciation for the challenges of negotiating complex topics.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to be effective in government, and a government full of lawyers wouldn’t necessarily represent the broader makeup of the American population. There are people who are excellent at negotiation who don’t have law degrees, and there are lawyers who don’t have the respect for negotiation, precedent, and nuance that might help government function more effectively. But government needs elected officials who embody the qualities of good lawyers, and it only makes sense for lawyers themselves who have an interest in public service to step up.

What we have now is a Congress full of people who seem incapable of working together to resolve even the simplest of conflicts, and a president who, despite his insistence on his own expertise in dealmaking, is much better at firing people than he is at building consensus. This is hardly the recipe for effective governance. Electing more lawyers might not be a complete solution, but it could be a good start. It’s hard to imagine that it would make the situation any worse.

Michelle Falkoff is the director of communication and legal reasoning at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where she is a Public Voices Fellow. She is the author of the young adult novels “Playlist for the Dead” and “Pushing Perfect.”