The Lawyer’s Mind
Political considerations aside, I was disappointed when I learned President Obama had appointed Ron Klain as the new Ebola “czar.” A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mr. Klain’s busy career has included service as a Congressional staffer and as chief of staff to Vice President Biden. As the head of the Gore campaign’s Florida recount effort in 2000, he was bested by James Baker and better lawyers, but my concerns about him aren’t based on his intelligence or diligence. Instead, they lie in the wisdom of inserting someone whose mind has been shaped by legal training into this role. Though I’m a lawyer myself, I admire the Zen Buddhist notion of beginner’s mind. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I’m worried that Mr. Klain possesses what one might call a “lawyer’s mind,” a mental toolbox whose implements are well-suited to solving a narrow range of problems but comes up empty when called upon for larger tasks. That danger is magnified by an education that instills in its students a serene self-confidence about the merits of its singular approach.
Though it’s evolved some from my days as a student at the University of Michigan’s distinguished law school, traditional legal education is noteworthy for fostering a linear, rational cast of mind. Problems tend to be shoehorned into the A vs. B of case studies, where conflicts are resolved by antiseptically adjudicating the parties’ respective rights. Though I’ve met few lawyers I’d consider intellectuals, we are agile thinkers, adept at absorbing large amounts of information quickly and turning it to productive use before moving on to the next case, when that information probably is useless. With all that, too many of us are too quick to drape over ourselves the mantle of expertise, even when sitting in a room with people who’ve devoted a career to mastering a subject. In the current crisis, where complex issues of public health, law and policy are in play, it will take more than some fat briefing books and a handful of meetings to equip Mr. Klain and his staff to wrestle with problems that seem as much rooted in some stubborn truths of human psychology and behavior as they are in medicine, or certainly in law. In contemplating the task he faces, he would do well to consider the words of T.S. Eliot: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Eliot was not a lawyer.