20 Things Top Of Mind In 2020

“Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled / The battle outside ragin’ will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls /
For the times they are a-changin’.”
— Bob Dylan

The new year often makes one think about the last year, the present, and what the future holds. And for many of us, we default to making lists: resolution lists, to-do lists, donation lists, future spring-cleaning lists, and bucket lists. For this week’s article, I thought I’d compile a list of the things that are currently occupying my mind as we welcome 2020.

  1. All good things must come to an end. In 2014, David Lat gave me an opportunity to write for Above the Law and I’ve been gripping the pen and sharing my thoughts with the ATL audience for over five years. In 2017, Lat handed the full-time reigns to Elie Mystal, who recently announced he will be leaving his day-to-day duties here at ATL. Between Lat and Mystal, I’ve had the chance to learn from some of the best in the business. Although they will still be interwoven in the ATL fabric, I will miss their daily commentary on and editorial selection of the profession.
  2. Leaders are human. Time and time again, we are reminded that even the most revered leaders are human. In 2018, I had the opportunity to join a new team in North Carolina focused on healthcare strategy and transformation, with a number of leaders recruited from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Center. One summer Saturday afternoon, our former CEO, drove under the influence. As a chief medical officer, doctor, and father, he should have known better than to take the wheel while intoxicated on that fateful day. In the healthcare industry, we often like to say, “healthcare is human.” It’s important to remember — so are those we place on pedestals.
  3. Good culture remains undervalued. It’s hard to put a price on good culture. Sometimes you can’t explain it, but you know it when you see it. You didn’t need to read Mike Isaac’s 2019 book Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber to understand that Uber had become a bro-toxic culture under its founder Travis Kalanick. Former Uber employee Susan Fowler’s 2017 memo exposed just how poisonous Uber’s culture had become. Companies that foster healthy cultures shouldn’t tolerate “brilliant jerks” or “cultural terrorists.”
  4. Diversity remains a struggle at our top law firms, most law firms. Diversity in law has flatlined since the Great Recession. Now that the books have closed for 2019, does your law firm have any receipts for its diversity, inclusion, and equity initiatives? Or is your firm stuck in its business-as-usual ways of the past decade? In his book What You Do Is Who You Are, Ben Horowitz describes “values” as what you say you will do and “virtues” as what you actually do. These days, I hear a lot of firms waxing poetically about their dedication to diversity and inclusion, but I rarely see these firms produce the respective receipts for these initiatives. It is no secret: high minority attrition rates remain a problem for law firms. It would be great if the legal industry reflected the diversity of people and culture in our country, but this has never been the case. As Brad Smith, Microsoft General Counsel & Executive Vice President (Legal and Corporate Affairs), notes, “To better understand the situation, it helps to compare diversity in the legal profession to three other professions with broad education or licensing requirements: physicians and surgeons, financial managers, and accountants/auditors. Although the percentage of under-represented minorities in each of those professions lags behind the national workforce, the gap between the legal profession and these other professions has actually worsened over the past nine years.” Diversity does not happen by accident. Diversity is not self-executing. The legal profession must evolve if it aspires to be as diverse as the country it serves.
  5. The koalas are in trouble. Koalas are begging humans for help and it is heartbreaking. Thank God, heroes (see here, here, and here) are stepping up to this climate challenge, forest devastation, and animal annihilation.
  6. At least the youth are serious about global warming. TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year is Greta Thunberg. As written in TIME’s feature article: Thunberg began a global movement by skipping school: starting in August 2018, she spent her days camped out in front of the Swedish Parliament, holding a sign painted in black letters on a white background that read Skolstrejk för klimatet: “School Strike for Climate.” In the 16 months since, she has addressed heads of state at the U.N., met with the Pope, sparred with the President of the United States and inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history. Her image has been celebrated in murals and Halloween costumes, and her name has been attached to everything from bike shares to beetles. Margaret Atwood compared her to Joan of Arc. After noticing a hundredfold increase in its usage, lexicographers at Collins Dictionary named Thunberg’s pioneering idea, climate strike, the word of the year.
  7. Houston Rocket General Manager Daryl Morey stood up for the Hong Kong protesters, but his NBA colleagues remain silent. It turns out that when faced with speaking up for democracy or being silenced by the almighty dollar, many will bend the knee to the crushing pressure of capitalism. Last October, in support of pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong, Daryl Morey shot a Tweet heard around the world: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” In response, as noted by The Ringer, the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association, and various Chinese businesses quickly denounced Morey and moved to sever ties with the Rockets. Many wondered, especially myself, how “The King,” LeBron James would respond. After all, LeBron produced the greatest documentary in 2019 (see below) on athletes and their influence on civil rights. To say LeBron’s response was disappointing is an understatement. Time and time again, we are reminded that even the most revered icons are human.
  8. Inequality levels are the highest since the Great Depression. The systematic inequality of the original Gilded Age has returned. Income inequality in the United States is the highest it’s been since 1928, according to the Pew Research Center. And it is only getting worse. The new Gilded Age we are experiencing in our country is not an alternative reality, it is an existential threat to our democracy. Past periods in our country, such as the industrial revolution, left many Americans in the dust. As we have often witnessed before, during periods of economic growth, stark boundaries begin to develop between the haves and have nots. But due to a confluence of events, we are now seeing an even grander wall being constructed between the few and the masses during this new Gilded Age. Never in the history of humanity have so few held so much. That is a problem. And never have so many of our citizens been so at risk or incarcerated. This is a catastrophe.
  9. Universal basic income is a popular idea again. Similar concepts once championed by Milton Friedman and Martin Luther King Jr. have made their way back into our country’s mainstream consciousness in the form of the “Freedom Dividend” thanks to American entrepreneur, philanthropist, lawyer, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Since I interviewed Yang, he has published a book, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future, and announced his presidential candidacy. Admittedly, he’s a long shot to win the primary, but it’s nice to see a form of Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax” concept being discussed and debated on the national stage.
  10. “What’s My Name, Muhammad Ali” is my favorite documentary of 2019. As published on HBO’s website: “Muhammad Ali transcended sports in a way the world had never seen before,” says executive producer LeBron James. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity to tell his incredible and important story for the coming generations. He showed us all the courage and conviction it takes to stand up for what you believe in. He changed forever what we expect a champion to be, and I’m grateful that SpringHill gets to be a part of continuing his legacy.”
    “Muhammad Ali had a deep impact on me from an early age,” observes Antoine Fuqua. “Being given the opportunity to tell his story, both inside and outside the ring, is a privilege and a dream come true.” Lonnie Ali, who was married to Muhammad Ali for the final 30 years of his life, adds, “We are at a time in American history when we look to a new generation of heroes like LeBron James to carry on Muhammad’s legacy, not only by remembering Muhammad, as is done so eloquently in this documentary, but also through their own words and deeds. I’m grateful to LeBron, Maverick Carter, SpringHill Entertainment, and HBO for advancing the ideals that Muhammad believed in and fought for throughout his life.”
  11. “American Factory” is my second favorite documentary of 2019. It is the first film distributed by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama‘s production company, Higher Ground Productions, according to Wikipedia. No doubt, influenced by Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger and Me,” this documentary highlights the struggles of a Midwest community, American manufacturing, and the labor class. The new world so many workers are left navigating leaves a lot to be desired. It is no wonder so many have fallen in love with the idea of making America great again.
  12. Americans continue to die by gun violence at an astounding rate. According to CBS News, “there were more mass shootings across the U.S. in 2019 than there were days in the year, according to a gun violence research group. 2019 had the highest number of mass shootings in any year since the research group started keeping track. By the end of 2019, there were 417 mass shootings in the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country. Thirty-one of those shootings were mass murders.” During the holidays, I visited the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where twenty-two people were gunned down, only to hear a few days later of another shooting in a Texas house of worship. Lest anyone forget about the Sutherland Springs church mass massacre. Many people have been denied the chance to walk in their commencement or celebrate their next birthday because we as a country refuse to talk about responsibilities. People can talk all day about their Second Amendment rights, but we need to begin the discussion about our responsibilities. How many more mass shootings in schools, synagogues, and churches can we endure before we accept some responsibility?
  13. We forgot about Aylan Kurdi. The current refugee crisis is the humanitarian issue of our lifetime, and we have met it with little to no fanfare. America was once viewed as a beacon of hope. Lady Liberty represented freedom and opportunity. But now we have plans to build a much vaunted wall while we permit our most at-risk communities to drown in lead-contaminated water. We pledge to never let millions of innocent lives suffer again or deprive our communities of their most basic needs. But how easily we forget. Humanity washed along the shore, and we walked by. We are witnessing so many refugee hands reach out, but we refrain from reaching back.
  14. The franchise is still under attack. Last week, The News & Observer’s columnist Will Doran wrote, “[r]acial discrimination was at least part of the motivation for a new voter ID law in North Carolina, a federal judge wrote Tuesday, striking the law down for now. In a 60-page ruling evoking decades of racism in North Carolina, the judge wrote that parts of the new voter ID law ‘were impermissibly motivated, at least in part, by discriminatory intent. North Carolina has a sordid history of racial discrimination and voter suppression stretching back to the time of slavery, through the era of Jim Crow, and, crucially, continuing up to the present day,’ she wrote.”
    Shortly after moving to North Carolina in 2018, I became alarmed just how blatant GOP operatives were in their mission to commit election fraud. While so many GOP members raise a ruckus about nonexistent voter fraud, when election fraud actually happens, those same GOP members sit on their hands and turn a blind eye. I’m surprised some of them didn’t tweet out their “thoughts and prayers” for this self-inflicted wound. My colleague Elie Mystal wrote about this issue earlier last year in a piece titled, “Good Time To Point Out Voter ID Would Not Stop Republican Election Fraud.”
  15. Bryan Stevenson finally gets his due. I’ve been waiting for over four years for Michael B. Jordan to star in the movie adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, which is based on the true story of Stevenson, a young lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative –- a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children. I still can’t believe we have the opportunity to watch Stevenson’s story on the big screen.
  16. Law schools continue to attract some of the best and brightest minds in America. Are you thinking about applying to law school? If you’re attending law school, do you need an inspirational reminder of why you sacrificed three years of your life to such intense study? If you’re an attorney, are you leveraging your degree in the ways in which you had hoped for at this point in time? Check out one of the more popular posts from last year on why others responded to the clarion call of the legal profession.
  17. The workplace is a changin’. In the fourth quarter, my workplace transformed into an open office. And more and more of my colleagues are working from home. Although I’m a millennial, I feel like an old soul. I like having an office, a desk, and the everyday banter with my coworkers. But the writing is on the wall. As our generation has put new demands on our employers, and employers seek an edge in recruiting Generation Z talent, the workplace has become more flexible, more remote, and more accommodating. In many ways, this is a good thing.
  18. There is hope for healthcare in America. As highlighted by Future Crunch, stroke rates for U.S. adults over the age of 65 have decreased by one third each decade for the past 30 years; new diabetes cases have declined by 35% since 2009, the longest decline since the government started tracking the statistic; and under the Affordable Care Act nearly 2 million diabetics, have received access to health insurance.
  19. There are reasons for optimism. There is a lot to be thankful for and to look forward to. The news cycle may seem like an endless narrative of negativeness, but it’s important to focus on the big picture. No doubt, it’s been a year of tumult — environmentally, politically, and societally, but there’s also been a lot of good in this world. As Dr. Angus Harvey, co-founder of Future Crunch proclaims, “if we want to change the story of the human race in the 21st century, we have to change the stories we tell ourselves.” In addition to the healthcare story above, here are additional 98 good new stories that Dr. Harvey and his company highlighted to inspire hope and change the narrative.
  20. Representation matters. In my favorite post from 2019, I had the opportunity to interview three 1Ls at Harvard. In 2020, I hope to speak with many more law students and recent alum on the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of their legal journeys. Stay tuned!

Renwei Chung is the Diversity Columnist at Above the Law. You can contact Renwei by email at projectrenwei@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter (@renweichung), or connect with him on LinkedIn. 

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