What do the following Presidents have in common: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt? All are frequently voted by historians as amongst the 10best U.S. Presidents – and all were lawyers or law school graduates.
And what do the following Presidents have in common: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Richard Nixon? All are frequently voted by historians as among the 10 worst U.S. Presidents – and all were lawyers or law school graduates.
The most important number may be that 25 out of 44 presidents graduated from law school or practiced law. (The two are not the same thing, especially in earlier times when most lawyers entered the profession through apprenticeship.) Lawyers represent only 0.36% of the U.S. population, but over 56% of presidents. The electorate, it seems, considers legal training a useful characteristic in presidents – or least not a disqualifying one.
It stands to reason that legal credentials would be common among the people who excel at politics and public service. People with an interest in government tend to gravitate toward law, since most government posts involve law in one capacity or another, whether it be making it, interpreting it, or enforcing it. As a result, the pool of credible presidential candidates is more lawyer-heavy than the public at large. This helps explain why three out of four of this year’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates – Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, and Mike Pence – were practicing lawyers before running for public office. And why one former president – William Howard Taft – and one serious presidential candidate – Charles Evans Hughes – later became chief justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The modern J.D. degree builds knowledge and skills useful for office-holders even if they never represented clients. President Barack Obama, for example, never had a private practice comparable to that of First Lady Michelle Obama. But like President Bill Clinton before him, he taught constitutional law at a law school (where one eye could also be kept on political opportunities). For which of our past lawyer-presidents was the daily practice of law a major part of their personal and professional identity? President John Adams considered one of his greatest professional accomplishments to be his successful defense of some very unpopular criminal defendants: British soldiers charged in the Boston Massacre. President Abraham Lincoln was a self-taught lawyer renowned for his courtroom skills. His “country lawyer” persona remains a defining part of his legacy. Rounding out this list of presidents whose outlook on life may have been shaped by their legal practice is Richard Nixon, who practiced law both before entering Congress and during his mid-1960’s political hiatus. Nixon’s most well-remembered statement – “I am not a crook” – interacts poignantly with Lincoln’s advice to young lawyers: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”
A law degree is of course no guarantee that today’s student will win tomorrow’s election. It does not guarantee how history will remember future lawyer-presidents. But as a credential that is both relevant for the job and respected by the voting public, a law degree seems to be a sound political investment.