Why is a Law Degree a Prerequisite for the Presidency?

[Cross-posted from ProgressiveHistorians.]

Below, compiled from Politics1, are the terminal degrees of the announced Democratic and Republican candidates for President:

    Law Degree (JD):

  • Hillary Clinton (Yale, 1973)

  • Barack Obama (Harvard, 1991, magna cum laude)

  • John Edwards (UNC, 1977)

  • Joe Biden (Syracuse U., 1968)

  • Chris Dodd (U. of Louisville, 1972)

  • Rudy Giuliani (NYU, 1968, magna cum laude)

  • Mitt Romney (Harvard, 1975, cum laude; Romney also has an MBA from Harvard, 1975)

  • Sam Brownback (Kansas, 1982)

  • Duncan Hunter (Western State U., 1976)

  • Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin, 1966)

  • Jim Gilmore (Virginia, 1977)

    Master of Arts (MA):

  • Bill Richardson (Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts, 1971)

  • Dennis Kucinich (Case Western, 1973)

    Bachelor of Science (BS):

  • Mike Gravel (Economics, Columbia, 1956)

    Bachelor of Arts (BA):

  • Tom Tancredo (U. of Northern Colorado, 1968)

    Medical Degree (MD):

  • Ron Paul (Duke, 1961)

    Military Degree (BS):

  • John McCain (West Point, 1958)

    Religious Degree:

  • Mike Huckabee (BS, Religion, Ouachita Baptist University, 1975, magna cum laude, and certification as a Baptist minister)

Anything stand out about this list to you?  How about from a historical perspective?

According to the American Bar Association, the following are America's lawyer Presidents:

    America's Lawyer Presidents

  • John Adams

  • Thomas Jefferson

  • James Monroe

  • John Quincy Adams

  • Andrew Jackson

  • Martin Van Buren

  • John Tyler

  • James K. Polk

  • Millard Fillmore

  • Franklin Pierce

  • James Buchanan

  • Abraham Lincoln

  • Rutherford B. Hayes

  • James A. Garfield

  • Chester A. Arthur

  • Grover Cleveland

  • Benjamin Harrison

  • William McKinley

  • William Howard Taft

  • Woodrow Wilson

  • Calvin Coolidge

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  • Richard M. Nixon

  • Gerald R. Ford

  • William Jefferson Clinton

I would personally dispute the inclusion of Woodrow Wilson on this list, as he had a higher terminal degree (Ph.D. in Political Science) and spent many more years as a professor of history and political science than as a lawyer.  On the other hand, the ABA excludes James Madison, arguing that he only "dabbled" in the law; in my opinion, Madison's "dabbling" was the direct cause of the U.S. Constitution, so I'd include him.  Considering that these two balance each other out, we are left with the following:

Percentage of Presidents with Law Degrees as their Highest Terminal Degrees Or Who Practiced Law as Their Main Career

59.5% (25/42)

Percentage of Declared Presidential Candidates with Law degrees as their Highest Terminal Degrees

61.1% (11/18)

Cripes, those numbers are similar.

Okay -- let's look at this in more detail.  Some of the lawyers on both these lists clearly made it because they were lawyers.  On the current candidates list, John Edwards won landmark cases against abusive corporations; Barack Obama was elected president of the Harvard Law Review; Rudy Giuliani put the Gotti family in jail as City Attorney for New York.  Similarly, in the Presidents list, John Adams defended the British officers in the Boston Massacre; Abraham Lincoln's judicial exploits are legendary; Benjamin Harrison, according to Harry Lambeth, was possessed of a "brilliant mind, extraordinary memory, unusual power of analysis, and great speaking ability."  To be fair, too, lawyers have been some of our greatest Presidents (Lincoln, FDR), while the non-George-Washington practitioners of our other great Presidential pastime, military service, have fared much poorer (Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower).

But to get back to the candidates at hand, what does Chris Dodd's law degree have to do with his qualifications for President?  Are they the reason he's in politics, or is it because of his father's political history?  (And before you jump down my throat, tis isn't a hit on Dodd -- he's done a fantastic job in thirty years in the Senate, but he got his seat partly because of his father's name, as did Bob Casey and Beau Biden and Mitt Romney.)  Speaking of Romney, what does HIS law degree have anything to do with?  He was elected because of his famous father, because he saved the SLC Olympics, and because he has gobs and gobs of money.

Romney's vast wealth points to one reason that lawyers continue to be successful politicians: money.  High-powered lawyers can make enough money to completely self-finance their campaigns (as John Edwards did in his 1998 Senate race); more importantly, it's a profession where a LOT of people make a lot of money and do a lot of networking.  That money is always at the fingertips of a prominent and popular lawyer, a ready-made network of funds and fundraisers.

Another, and more lamentable, reason so many successful candidates have law degrees is that most of them are essentially career politicians.  Brownback was a Senator four years after he got his JD; Biden was elected to City Council in literally the first election in which he was eligible to run after receiving his law degree.  These people don't get law degrees because they want to be lawyers, they get them because they want something respectable to do while they wait to come of age and run for political office.  A JD is the easiest graduate degree to obtain, so they choose that path.

It wasn't arbitrary that most of our first Presidents had legal expertise.  Many of them were involved in the Critical Period of American democracy -- the period from 1781-1791 when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were formulated and passed.  A law degree is exceedingly important when your main job is writing and tweaking the law.  But today that's not the primary job of any President, and a law degree simply isn't necessary, or even necessarily desirable, as Presidential training.

To put it another way, despite the legal failings of the Bush Administration, I'm not convinced Bush would have been a better President if he'd earned a law degree instead of an MBA.  Frankly, it's not his job to write laws, or even to figure out their legal ramifications after he signs them.  He's got staffers galore with JDs who can keep him up to speed on those things.  Instead, Bush lacks three things that aren't taught in law school: common sense, a dextrous grasp of foreign policy, and a sense of his presidency in history.

I'd love to see some Presidents with terminal degrees in political science (like Woodrow Wilson), history (though PLEASE GOD not Newt Gingrich) or foreign policy (like Bill Richardson).  But I'll settle for having a campaign that, for once, isn't dominated by those people all Americans love to hate: lawyers.  Let's instead elect Presidents who have expertise or experience in a field that has actual relevance to the job they'll be doing in the White House: maintaining a fragile world order, developing new policy proposals and ideas, and making life-and-death decisions.

Heck, even the Brits are doing it.

Tags: 2008 elections, history, lawyers (all tags)



Tip jar

Because I'm not a lawyer, so I'm poor...:)

by Nonpartisan 2007-05-02 08:41PM | 0 recs

"A JD is the easiest graduate degree to obtain, so they choose that path."

Having taken two years of law school, I'm not sure that I'd agree with that.  However, your basic premise, that being a lawyer doesn't make you a better president - that I'll agree to.  And nothing would have made Bush a better president - except maybe a brain transplant.

by jamesbayers 2007-05-03 02:47AM | 0 recs

Last time I checked Bush was not a lawyer, and in fact appears to be explicitly hostile to the law. Look where that's got us.

Some other non-lawyers to hold the office - George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan, Herbert Hoover

by gabbneb 2007-05-03 05:35AM | 0 recs
Theodore Roosevelt

James Madison, and John Kennedy weren't lawyers either.

It cuts both ways.

by Nonpartisan 2007-05-03 05:46AM | 0 recs
Not really

It's irrelevant that the author of the bill of rights and most important Federalist papers did not have what we now would call formal legal training (in an era prior to the establishment of the first American law school). TR might not have graduated from law school, but, like LBJ, he attended one for a while. And B school auditor and International Affairs scholar Kennedy, like TR one of the youngest (and most prodigal) Presidents, is debatable as a great or even good President.

I certainly agree that a legal education should not be a prerequisite and was attitudinally (but not necessarily logically) drawn to Dean as well, but I don't think you can deny that law school provides a particularly useful general education, analytic sense and rhetorical skill that may be unmatched by those without such training, and that some prominent political figures without law degrees may have a resistance or hostility to law that is inappropriate in the office.

by gabbneb 2007-05-03 09:04AM | 0 recs

As someone who calls themselves "nonpartisan" and is advocating for a non-lawyer used to "making life-and-death decisions," surely there's no possibility that you are in fact a supporter of Ron Paul, M.D. ("I"-Crackpotville, U.S.A.) who for some reason feels inhibited about stating your support explicitly?

by gabbneb 2007-05-03 05:39AM | 0 recs

I'm TOTALLY a Ron Paul supporter. :)

No, but I did support a doctor in the last election: Howard Brush Dean III, MD.  This cycle?  I'm supporting a lawyer, John Edwards.

by Nonpartisan 2007-05-03 05:46AM | 0 recs
Re: Life stories

What makes a good President is solid and effective life experiences.  Lincoln and Washington and FDR and Wilson all had them.  George W. Bush did not.  A surprising number of these Presidents also suffered a sharp personal loss:  a brother (Washington), mother (Lincoln), child (Lincoln), wife (Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt), fiance (LIncoln), personal health (FDR).  

These were individuals tested in the fire and proven by serious accomplishments.  Washington could save an army from disaster in his 40's because he had done so at age 26 or 27 with Braddock's expedition (writing from memory here).  Bush certainly had the potential here but he was constantly saved and softened.

by David Kowalski 2007-05-03 05:58AM | 0 recs
A very, very interesting point

And well taken.

Could it be, then, that Hoover failed because his life had been too soft, even though he had all the experience in the world?

by Nonpartisan 2007-05-03 07:46AM | 0 recs


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