October 27th, 2008

So many Presidents, so many lawyers

For some reason I was under the impression that our abundance of lawyers as President was a somewhat recent phenomenon. But I found this list striking and surprising: the tendency goes way back.

Seems like it’s lawyers all the way down, with a smattering of military men (McCain would be in that mold) and the odd haberdasher. Oh, and a tailor, and a few other random jobs such as teacher or actor (we know who he was).

But “lawyer” is the dominant occupation by a mile. Of course, some of these “lawyer” designations are suspect, (James Madison, for one), although I haven’t checked them all out. But my guess is that most are correct.

The profession of law was a different beast back then, however, at least the training for it. Until the twentieth century, most lawyers learned their skills under the apprenticeship system, where instruction and experience varied widely, as did the requirements for admission to the bar. Now it’s been standardized and made a schoolroom rather than a real-world thing, with virtually all lawyers earning three-year postgraduate degrees.

Lawyers have a few things in common with each other, besides knowledge of the law and being universally reviled nowadays. They tend to be very good with words and with argument, both written and spoken. The Presidential debate format—which I find mostly irrelevant to the actual business of governing as an chief executive, although it is germane to the important Presidential element of persuasive communication—certainly would seem to favor lawyers. It never hurts to know the way the law works, either.

A relatively new phenomenon is the President/FirstLady lawyer/lawyer combo. Perhaps this is what Bill Clinton meant when he said that if he were elected President, we’d get two for the price of one. It would also be true of Barack and Michelle Obama, as it would have been of Bob and Liddy Dole (perhaps the first lawyer/lawyer nominated couple?)

Most lawyers are also good at something else—arguing either side of an issue, as suits the moment and the client. This also fits the description of Bill Clinton—who tended to govern by poll—and Barack Obama, who seems in this campaign to reinvent himself and his viewpoints (usually skewed far more to the center than previous words would suggest) moment by moment.

17 Responses to “So many Presidents, so many lawyers”

  1. dane Says:

    What do you call 500 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? – A good start.

    By the way I saw you have a link to Michael Yon. He has been my go-to guy to see what the REAL scoop is in Iraq and Afghanistan (plus some other interesting post from far off places). He actually had gone out of his way to stay neutral in regard to the election so I was surprised to see this yesterday in my inbox


    The outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections will have a profound impact on the war. Meanwhile, the day to day fighting continues. If Senator Obama is elected, I expect to spend a great deal of time covering the fighting. Judging by his words, Senator Obama must be watched closely or we might see some terrible decisions. I expect 2009 to be the worst year so far in the Af-Pak war, which has serious potential to eventually become far worse than Iraq ever was. If Senator McCain is elected, I’ll breathe easier in regard to the war.

    For a short dispatch, please click, “Are you Connected.”

    Very Respectfully,

    Michael Yon

  2. Ray Says:

    When VP Cheney shot the lawyer, I thought it was the start of tort reform.

  3. Paul Gordon Says:

    Thank you, Ray.
    You just made my day :-)

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    yup, lots of lawyers… mackinnon is a lawyer too…
    cant change systems without knowing how they work…

    though, given the phil enquirers new article on who should be allowed to vote… looks like the lawyers will be taking a holiday when the moment arrives.

    imagine the lawyers and activists that would line up if they mentioned a diffrent color


    The white folks greed runs the world in need – obama quote

    so what are the lawyers now making? i guess they are now arguing on the side of communist collective, or some version of black national socialism…

    the nazies were national socialists…
    the commuists were international socialists…

    who ever thought that through highlander, and operation pandora and hundreds of others, that they would make charles manson happy!!!!

  5. SteveH Says:

    God decided to take the devil to court and settle their differences once and for all. When Satan heard this, he laughed and said, “And where do you think you’re going to find a lawyer?”

  6. Dave Moelling Says:

    Not to interrupt a good string of lawyer jokes, but seriously politics is a career plus for a Lawyer. For anyone else it is a serious sacrifice to run (and win) for office. A Lawyer can more easily slow or halt his practice while running, and both running and winning (or losing) attract more clients and contacts. Other professions or trades you only will lose income and advancement. This was true in Lincoln’s time as it is today.

  7. Cappy Says:

    Time for a Database Administrator to move to the White House!

  8. Ed Says:

    Q: What’s the difference between Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney?

    A: When Sarah shoots a lawyer he’s stayin’ down.

  9. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Perhaps these two most undeserved bad knocks are hospital food and lawyers. Nothing tastes good to sick people. In law there is always a winner and a loser. You’ve got at least half the people pissed before you even start.

  10. Donna B. Says:

    I suspect all the lawyer jokes were posted by lawyers :-)

  11. Assistant Village Idiot Says:

    I did a post on a similar phenomenon about a month ago. Most of the Senators are lawyers as well – half the Republicans and two-thirds of the Democrats.

    I mentioned it in the context of John Sununu, one of only five Senators with any science training (two physicians, two veterinarians, and he’s an engineer). John is about to lose in NH, I think, and we’ll have even fewer people who have aclue about technical matters in place.

    Lawyers are also skilled in becoming self-righteously outraged in exchange for money, which seems an excellent preparation for a political career.

  12. GeoPal Says:

    Roy Lofquist said:
    In law there is always a winner and a loser. You’ve got at least half the people pissed before you even start.

    Until the winner gets his “billable hours” bill and then everyone’s pissed.

    Assistant Village Idiot said:
    Lawyers are also skilled in becoming self-righteously outraged in exchange for money, which seems an excellent preparation for a political career.

    Very perceptive AVI. Painfully, disturbingly, true.

  13. Tertium Quid Says:

    God has at least one lawyer with him: Saint Thomas More!

  14. Paul Gordon Says:

    Mario Puzo once wrote that the most quoted line from his novel “The Godfather” was the Don pointing out that “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns” (No, the line is NOT in the movie).

    He had lost track of how many people loved that line, many of them lawyers.

  15. roc scssrs Says:

    Not that I don’t appreciate a good lawyer joke, but– I just wanted to note that Truman wasn’t just a haberdasher–he was a bank clerk, then a farmer, then a captain of artillery in WWI, then he got together with his vet buddies and started the haberdashery. Then it was years as a local county commissioner. If Obama had one-tenth the real life experience that Truman had (and Palin has), I wouldn’t be so nervous at the prospect of an Obama administration.

  16. Oh, bother Says:

    1) AVI re: lawyers and self-righteous outrage: I wish I’d written that!

    2) While reading this it occurred to me that both law and journalism were active and respected professions long before schools were established to teach them. After schools were established to make both professions more professional, both went downhill in a handcart and lost public respect. Coincidence? I doubt it.

  17. Vince P Says:

    What I detest is the Lawyerization of war.. including their involvement with targeting.

    Were these vermin always involved like they are now?

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