Let's Kill the Lawyers

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, July 22, 2005

Like many theoretical physicists, I come from a family of lawyers. Whether this is good or bad one could debate, but the link between physics and law is well known and presumably inherited. As a result, I learned as a kid not only about technical things but also about law, including the fact that legal people are often independent to the point of eccentricity and have irreverent senses of humor. One of their favorite jokes is a quote from William Shakespeare's Henry VI: "The first thing we do is kill all the lawyers." My father liked this quote so much he displayed it in his office. It was inscribed on the base of a little statue of man with slick hair and an expensive suit holding an open book. There was also a big hand holding a gun to the man's head. He said the statue always got things off to a good start with clients.

Lawyers love Shakespeare's joke partly because it is old. Evidently Englishmen four hundred years ago were just as exasperated with law as we are today---and had similar thoughts about how to fix the problem. I suspect that people four hundred years in the future will be the same. This joke will always be funny.

It is thus not surprising that many Koreans oppose the growth in number and authority of lawyers presently underway in their country. Some people even argue that we should kill all the lawyers now, before they reproduce.

One of the things I have learned administering a university here is that Korea is not a "legal" society in Western sense. What I mean is that not all important things are written. Agreements in Korea, even very significant ones, are usually verbal, and people are often extremely reluctant to write down commitments, to document conversations and thought processes, to publicly record rules and decisions based on them, or to speak their mind in print. Several colleagues have suggested to me that these traditions are an unhappy side effect of the Japanese occupation, but I don't think that's right. I think they are deeply cultural.

These traditions give Koreans an advantage over Western countries in some things and a disadvantage in others. If I wish to "borrow" someone else's technology, for example, vague or nonexistent intellectual property law obviously gives me an advantage. If I wish to defend my own technology from theft, on the other hand, tight, well-defined law gives me the advantage, since then I can sue the thieves. Similarly, if I have time and money to invest, weak law discourages me from innovating because my competitors will simply steal my innovations and second-source them. It encourages me to divert my investments into safe things, such as precious metals or Shanghai condominiums.

Thus it may turn out that creeping legalization is not a disease to cure but a natural development required for further economic advancement. Unfortunately no one knows for sure. Koreans will just have to decide whether to allow it or not, and then see what happens.

In making this decision, it may help Koreans to consider that Westerners' enthusiasm for writing is related to their religious traditions. The central concept is Lex Regis, or "the law is king." The idea is the a set of rules, written down in plain view, acquires moral authority greater than that of the people who made them because the writing is permanent and doesn't fade away the way our memories do. Writing, in other words, is something "holy" to which everyone, including the king, must submit. Expressing yourself in writing allows any third party to witness what you said at a later date and thus forces you to be responsible. The reason you don't change law capriciously, deliberately misinterpret the law's intent or allow important relationships to be merely verbal is that such behavior is immoral. Lex Regis is related to the Greek concept of Logos, the logic of the universe, an idea that became incorporated into Christianity and then spread throughout Europe.

The transition to rule of law in Europe took many centuries and was extremely difficult politically. In 1644, about the time Shakespeare suggested to kill the lawyers, a book entitled LEX REX by Samuel Rutherford appeared in Scotland and England. The case it made for supremacy of the law was considered so seditious by the king that it became punishable by death to own a copy this book, a situation that persisted until 1688. Similar events took place somewhat later on the continent.

History thus suggests that Koreans should wait a bit before killing all their lawyers.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]