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Why lawyers make better Presidents

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Full disclosure: I'm a lawyer.   Further disclosure: I represent corporations. So this is a tough one.   But after hearing Clint Eastwood's speech at the 2012 Republic Convention in Tampa, I couldn't help but to write this to defend my trade.  

" See, I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to [be] the president"I think it is maybe time - what do you think - for maybe a businessman. How about that?" said Clint Eastwood that night.

In saying that, Clint made my day, for it justified me putting to paper something which I had already been planning to write for quite some time.   That is, why do lawyers make better Presidents than businessmen ever could?

The facts first. Twenty-five out of forty-four US Presidents came from a background in law.   Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as the main author of the Declaration of Independence, was a lawyer for about five years before entering politics.   Franklin Roosevelt, also a lawyer, was crucial in helping the US navigate through the Great Depression and World War II.   Most recently, President Barack Obama (yes, also a lawyer) ended the War in Iraq, won a Nobel Peace Prize, and redefined America's role in the world.  

Lawyers arguably have a number of advantages over businessmen when it comes to politics.   First, lawyers are creatures of advocacy.   A lawyer's professional life revolves around advocating specific positions on behalf of its clients, similar to a politician's advocacy of a constituent's interests.   After all, law is an extension of the democratic process.   Lawyers are trained in navigating through legislation and policy, and this gives the legal profession a head start in understanding how society works, which in turn helps them serve it better.

Lawyers are also fundamentally bound by ethical duties to the client, the profession and the public at large. No such equivalent exists in the world of business. The legal profession is a principled one, firmly rooted in the principles of justice, freedom and ethics.

Granted there may be crooks, like in any trade.   "Kill all the lawyers" wrote Shakespeare in Henry VI.   Written in praise of lawyers as a profession that respects the rule of law, the line has been misinterpreted ever since to convey derogatory depictions of lawyers.  

Lawyers and businessmen have different objectives.   Lawyers seek to maximize a client's freedom; businessmen, shareholder wealth.   (To be sure, some lawyers help businessmen do the latter and there's nothing wrong with that as long as everyone plays by the rules.) But arguably, the desire to get the right answer permitted by law is a better qualification for government than the greed to get-it-all at any cost.   As the English playwright W. Somerset Maugham once put it, "any society that values wealth above freedom will lose its freedom, and will ultimately lose its wealth as well."

Businessmen are mostly concerned with maximizing shareholder value. As Milton Friedman, a leading economist at the University of Chicago, once put it, "the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits." Granted, the corporate social responsibility movement is trying to change that and instill a greater sense of responsibility in the commercial world.   Businesses have the ability to do good. And some even do great. They create jobs and invest in new technologies that make our lives easier.

But a country cannot be run like a corporation.   Business cannot become synonymous for society.   Society's core is not comprised of shareholders, but people. As Elizabeth Warren passionately argued at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, " people have hearts.  They have kids.  They get jobs.  They get sick.  They cry, they dance.  They live, they love, and they die, and that matters." 

Lawyers, as agents of the democratic will, are aptly suited to govern the country's political machinery. In 1774, John Adams, the second President of the United States, famously proclaimed that ours is "a government of laws, and not men."   Men barter for the lowest price.   Lawyers argue for the greatest ideals.

At the end of the day, though, this election will likely be decided on business principles: not necessarily who has the best background, but who has the biggest bankroll.

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Lucas Bento is an attorney at an international law firm in New York City. He specializes in complex litigation and international commercial arbitration. He has previously published in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune and the (more...)
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