Why are so many politicians lawyers?

By Nick Li

art.2114.obama.hill.gi.jpgAnyone observing the fireworks during the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate in South Carolina on Monday can be forgiven for focusing on the glaringly obvious. The gloves finally came off as the first potential female and first potential black president of the United States slung the mud thick: Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton: "Because while I was working on those streets [as a community organizer] watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart. Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama: "I was fighting against [the ideas of Ronald Reagan] when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Resco, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago." And lest the lone white male contender feel left out, we had this little exchange: John Edwards to Hillary Clinton : When somebody gives you millions and millions of dollars, I think they expect something. I don’t think they’re doing it for nothing. Hillary Clinton: Well, John, trial lawyers have given you millions and millions of dollars. So… John Edwards: And what they expect from me is they expect me to stand up for democracy, for the right to jury trial, for the right for little people to be heard in the courtroom. And that is exactly what I stand up for. That is not the same thing. That is not the same thing as corporate lobbyists who are in there every single day lobbying against the interests of middle-class Americans. While people tend to play up the minor policy differences and the major generational/racial/gender/personality differences of these candidates, what is most striking to me is that all three were lawyers before entering politics. Hillary Clinton graduated from Yale Law School and was indeed a corporate lawyer for a firm that represented Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and other members of the Arkansas corporate elite. Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a civil rights lawyer focusing on discrimination and voting rights. He also taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for 11 years. John Edwards graduated from North Carolina Law School and had an extremely successful career as a Trial Attorney, winning over a hundred million dollars from corporations and medical institutions on behalf of his clients. It is probably fair to conclude something about these individuals from the type of law they practiced. Clinton is a member of the corporate and Democratic party establishment, Obama is more grassroots oriented, and Edwards is very confrontational when it comes to corporations and the healthcare industry. Clinton talks about "getting results" the way CEOs do, Obama is more philosophical (befitting a law professor) and Edwards always talks as if he’s making his emotional closing statement to a jury. This domination of politics by lawyers is hardly unusual of course. 25 out of 42 U.S. Presidents practiced law before becoming president including Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Woodrow Wilson in this century. This is quite a common pattern across many countries. An almost equally high rate of Canadian Prime Ministers – 11 out of 21 – and 2 of the last 4 British and Dutch Prime Ministers were also lawyers. [For our German friends, I’m afraid only Gerhard Schroeder, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, and Konrad Adenauer, 3 out of 8 elected Prime Ministers, were lawyers since WWII]. Some other notable lawyers who went on to be successful politicians include Gandhi, Lenin, and Abraham Lincoln. In some sense this is an obvious and trivial connection. Lawyers help enforce and apply laws, while politicians write them. Top judges are usually appointed by politicians and sometimes even elected, making them de facto politicians. Many lawyers are good at public speaking and debating, which are important skills for a politician. I found an interesting discussion of this issue at LawClinic TV. They argue that there are some people who go into law who always wanted to be politicians but had to wait, because of age requirements, the need to be taken seriously (and not judged as a (gasp) career politician), and the need to make contacts and money. There are others who go into politics as a natural outgrowth of their professional activities, perhaps because they see particular laws that they would like to change or because they become acutely aware of issues of justice and equality and would like to make a difference on a larger scale. And yet, there are many drawbacks to having lawyers dominate politics. Lawyers and politicians are two of the most hated and least trusted groups of people, as the large number of jokes at their expense will attest, and this may be at the root of some of the public cynicism towards politics in North America and elsewhere. Although ethical conduct is considered central to both professions, they both seem to exhibit a higher than normal rate of professional misconduct and breach of trust, in the public perception if not in reality. For many lawyers and politicians, the point is to win at all costs – in trying to win on behalf of their client, or in trying to get elected, they often seem to push aside their convictions or sense of right and wrong in favour of expediency. Much of the vitriol directed at lawyers and politicians is directed at their rhetorical flair – they are good at selling things and telling people what they want to hear, skills that are also shared by that other most-hated profession, the used-car salesman. One cannot help but ask the question of what makes a lawyer particularly well-suited to running a country, as opposed to running for office. Many of our elected officials’ important duties involve running the economy, allocating resources and budgets, and analyzing policies based on their inputs and expected outcomes, yet lawyers have less experience at this than businessmen and economists (the next most common professions in politics). When it comes to deciding on whether to join a currency union, how to direct a trade negotiation, whether to cut taxes or how to design a social program, lawyers appear dangerously under-qualified compared businessmen and economists. When it comes to planning for and executing a war, lawyers appear to be dangerously under-qualified compared to ex-military men and women. When we are confronted with the greatest crises in the world today – global warming, disease, energy scarcity – lawyers appear to be dangerously under-qualified compared to scientists, doctors and engineers. Lawyers tend to have little substantive expertise in any of these areas, and it is their skill at "politics" rather than "policy" that seems to have enabled their political success. Despite these drawbacks, I believe that the most problematic aspect of the domination of politics by lawyers is that lawyers tend to be drawn disproportionately from the elite of any society. Whether they are born wealthy or made wealthy through their careers, a large part of their success, especially in the United States, has been their enormous personal wealth. Besides business people, few other professions can compete in the money game that has become essential to mounting a successful political career – certainly not academics, scientists, or even doctors. Though I doubt we will ever see many social workers, teachers, nurses, retail workers, or blue-collar professions represented in politics, decreasing the domination of politics by lawyers will mean that we have achieved some progress in reigning in the influence of money. Together with having a more balanced group of politicians with substantive expertise in areas of management, economics, science and warfare, this can only improve the quality of our political class. Unfortunately for Democratic Party members in the US, that will have to wait for another round…

4 thoughts on “Why are so many politicians lawyers?

  1. I find it painfully revealing that an individual can become a law professor whom barely ever stepped into a court room or has ever argued a case in court.

  2. Perhaps in the US in particular, our lack of a proportional representation system means that effective legislators are those that make compromises. You need to amke compromises to get elected; I don’t beleive that there is one single viewpoint that will get you the number needed to win. Rather, it is balancing the diverse interests of your constitutency that serves a politician well. This may be different in Europe or to a lesser extent in Canada, where in a proprtional system all you need to to is convince one segment of the population that you have a viewpoint that they want represented in the legislature.

    And, of course, effective legislators have to cut deals all the time… I’ll vote for your bill if you vote for mine.

    I’m not sure what “interpreting” the law has to do with it. ALL laws are made by lawyers, on some level, as the drafters are almost always lawyers. And, in the US under the common law system, some laws are made by judges, and by the lawyers that argue the cases in which they are made, and by the persuasion of the briefs and law review articles they write.

    In the US a law degree is the most practical degree in government you can get. Yes, there are masters in public policy and other such things, but not many people get those. Lawyers are trained how government works, why it works that way, and how you can change it. It seems to me a natural fit that those persons who chose to and did get the degree are a natural fit for entering politics.

  3. Thanks for mentioning the other sites – I hadn’t noticed them but I see many blogging minds think alike.
    I thought I was pretty clear about pointing out the trivial connection above. I would just re-emphasize two things –

    (1)The distinction between executive power and the legislature (or more broadly, between governing and legislating). You might have noticed my main focus was on the U.S., not entirely coincidentally, since that is a country without a parliamentary democracy but instead with a strong executive and separation of powers. It is also the case that in recent years many of the elected presidents have NO legislative experience, serving as Governors instead. I would argue that being President is much more like being a CEO of a major corporation than a trial lawyer, defense attorney, corporate lawyer, civil rights lawyers, international human rights lawyer, etc.

    (2)The distinction between making and interpreting law. As far as I know, lawyers do not actually make laws but attempt to interpret or apply them to specific cases. Judges, and especially Supreme Court Judges, in the US DO often make and change laws. However, they rarely if ever get elected to be President (or even legislators) because of the notion of separation of powers. Also, I thought the point of going into politics was ideology, prestige, power, and the desire to enact specific policies, not to compromise and balance out a “number of diverse interests” whatever that means). Apparently, you are telling me that some people just like writing legislation, and that is the reason they go into law and then politics.

  4. There is a list of the US presidential candidates and their law degrees here.

    Why is it that you are so quick to jump to the conclusion that lawyers are good at “politics” but not at “policy”? Don’t most law schools focus on policy, the reasons for the rules rather than the rules themselves?

    Politicians are called on to be experts in any number of areas. While an economist might have excellent views on trade policy, she is also likely to be short on knowledge of healthcare policy. Law making is more about the balancing-out of a number of diverse interests than about having the one absolute answer to a particular policy question. And even if you did have the absolute answer to a policy question, if you don’t have a sufficient knowledge of the law to be able to draft the legislation, get it implemented, and avoid court challenges, who cares?

    There are parallel discussions going on about this at Volokh and Marginal Revolution.

    What is particularly interesting to me is the degree of acceptance of a view that lawyers go into politics and succeed at a disproportionate rate because of any number of ancillary characteristics, real or imagined: their ability to manage their schedule, their skills in debate and public speaking, their wealth. Yet, everyone wants to skip over some pretty obvious observations: lawyers go into law-making at a disproportionate rate than others because lawyers are, as a group, profoundly interested in the law, and lawyers succeed in law-making because they have studied the process of making laws.

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