The Declining Dominance of Lawyers in U.S. Federal Politics

by on January 9, 2016 at 12:58 am in Data Source, Education, Law, Political Science | Permalink

From Nick Robinson at Harvard Law:

While the ubiquity of lawyers in U.S. electoral politics has frequently been noted, there has been almost no research on how their prevalence has changed over time, why these changes might have occurred, or the consequences of any such shift. This working paper helps fill this gap by using a unique data set that extends over two hundred years to chart the occupational background of members of the U.S. Congress. It finds that lawyers’ dominance in Congress is in slow, but steady, retreat. In the mid-19th century almost 80% of members of Congress were lawyers. By the 1960s this had dropped to a bit under 60%, and by 2015 it was slightly under 40%. The working paper also details variation of the prevalence of lawyers in Congress on the basis of geographic region, gender, race, and political party. It puts forward a set of arguments about why lawyers have traditionally had such success in U.S. federal electoral politics, including the politicization of the US justice system and the comparative advantage lawyers have over other occupations in terms of access to resources and career flexibility. It then claims that lawyers’ electoral decline may be the result of changes within the legal profession, as well as the emergence of a competing full-time professionalized political class, comprised of political aides and members of civil society, who have made politics a career. It ends by briefly exploring some of the potential ramifications of this decline on the legal profession.

File under…”division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.”

Hat tip goes to

1 Steve Sailer January 9, 2016 at 1:10 am

The number of political staffers was remarkably low until, perhaps, the mid-20th Century.

For example, when Abraham Lincoln was nominated in the summer of 1860, he hired a _second_ staffer, young lawyer John Hay, which began one of the more glittering careers and dynasties in American history.

2 DaveTh January 9, 2016 at 10:58 am

Bean counting lawyers in Congress is the wrong metric. Real question is the trend of “lawyers” in the overall Federal Government.

Most Federal “law” (rules imposed on populace) is now produced by Federal administrative & regulatory agencies that have exploded in number/size.
These agencies are dominated by lawyers.

3 RM January 9, 2016 at 1:36 am

1. Lawyers could have higher morals than we imagine them to have and with the decadence of American politics, they felt obliged to build careers elsewhere.

2. Consistent with 1, pre WW2 politics was really a call to service for which lawyers were well-suited. Then politics become not.

3. Contradicting 1 and 2, maybe more lucrative opportunities opened elsewhere. Is the decline of lawyers in politics inversely related to the presence of lawyers on Wall Street?

4 UrethraFranklin January 9, 2016 at 1:14 pm

We all lost you at your Point One.

5 Edward Burke January 9, 2016 at 1:48 am

Mutatis mutandis: a comparable study on the role of journalism and journalists, publishers and editors in US Federal politics? in regional, state, and municipal politics? (at least up to 1980 or 1990, after which the emergence of cable and internet service brought new dynamics to which we still adjust)

6 T Mink January 9, 2016 at 2:26 am

There will always be a significant portion of higher elected offices held by lawyers just from the fact that prosecutors and often judges are elected positions. It’s common to leverage the electoral skills and infrastructure from one office to move up the ladder and the resources afforded lawyers are likely better than the other entry level elected positions such as city council or school board.

7 Jan January 9, 2016 at 6:18 am

That’s a good point–it explains almost 30% of the lawyers in Congress. In the 114th there are 213 members with a law degree, including 15 former judges and former 43 prosecutors.

8 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 9:26 am

If you say so. In Upstate New York, the only DA I can ever recall getting elected to Congress was Michael Arcuri. He lasted two terms. As far as I can recall, no judge has been elected to Congress from Upstate in the last 4 decades. I could give you examples of judges who began their career as municipal councillors and the like; they pay their dues and get some exposure so they can run for the office they really want. There was one case of a county executive who took a job in state government and was replaced (by a vote of the county legislature) with a local judge (who won two more terms), but he was pretty singular. The thing is, If you run for a superior court judgeship in New York, you run the risk of having to practice in front of your opponent if you lose and you have to shut down your law practice if you win. Those who run for these posts want to be judges. The terms are long (10 or 14 years depending on which court you run for) the pay and benefits satisfactory, and you’ll seldom be voted out of office unless you make a complete ass of yourself in a public place; party sachems commonly come to cross-endorsement agreements so as to avoid competitive races. Also, if you’re a judge, you also do not have to spend precious time commuting to Washington or Albany, abase yourself with constant fundraising, or answer questions from reporters.

9 Jan January 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm

The data bears his point out, though perhaps not the extent many think. Perhaps Upstate NY is not very similar to most of the country. Maybe it would be doing a little better economically if it tried to, though.

10 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 2:34 pm

You can be a ‘former prosecutor’ without being an elected DA. The DA’s office in my home town employs about 60 attorneys and the state Department of Law has 2,000 employees, all told, some of whom work as prosecutors (of corporate defendants). There’s also the U.S. Attorney’s office. As for ‘former judges’, that could mean a small town JP (which, in New York, does not require a law degree).

Not sure what Upstate’s economic problems (fairly normal for a Rustbelt swatch) have to do with the issue at hand.

11 Stuart January 9, 2016 at 3:00 am

I imagine the glut of lawyers being pumped out by financially motivated law schools (public and private) will help these numbers from dropping too much in the future.

I’m hopeful that fewer lawyers in Congress could start to dent the cartel lawyers currently have – at some point in the future. I’d also be interested to see how lawyer representation have changed in state legislatures over time.

12 Doug January 9, 2016 at 3:02 am

Couldn’t it simply be that the variety of professions increases with rising economic growth and complexity? Politicians most likely draw from the pool of the highly verbally intelligent. 150 years ago the primary profession for people of that cognitive disposition was attorney. At the very least the MBA-executive career track must have siphoned a fair number of people from a traditional attorney role. Had Mitt Romney been born in 1850, its unlikely he would have been a management consultant…

13 Steve Sailer January 9, 2016 at 3:43 am

That makes sense. Being a lawyer is kind of like the white collar version of how economic historians like to track the wages of carpenters, since it’s been an identifiable trade at least since 1 AD.

A few years ago I read through the biographies of numerous famous composers of the last few centuries, and one thing that jumped out at me was that a sizable fraction had studied law before becoming professional composers. (They often argued with their families over how they were neglecting their legal studies for music.)

For hundreds of years all across Europe and America, becoming a lawyer of some type has been a plausible-sounding career path for bourgeois families to set their sons upon.

14 Adrian Ratnapala January 9, 2016 at 4:38 am

I think this is what TC is getting at by saying ”division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” Here the “market” grows with the growth of government. The ecosystem of people who lobby, administer and regulate a finer division of labour than existed below. This spelisation argument is probably the correct explanation. But let me play devils advocate:

Maybe the rule of law is eroding, and the comparitive advantages of lawyers with it. Perhaps once upon a time lawyers had an advantage in getting their campaigns organised, and their political work done because they needed to to chart a course through knowable law. Maybe now these things can’t be acheived by simply following the law, but you have to instead schmooze the right people.

15 Jan January 9, 2016 at 6:01 am

Here is an interesting profile of the 114th Congress.

Most come from politics (former mayors, govs, etc.), law and business. I was surprised that 100 members have worked in education, though they use a broad definition (including coaches).

102 members are former congressional staffers. This sounds bad to a lot of folks, but I view it is mostly positive; these are people who at least ostensibly care about actual policy and have experience working on the details and cooperating with other staffers.

Maybe we should not be surprised that 22 members are PR or communications professionals. Also depressing is how underrepresented engineers and scientists are. STEM-related fields don’t have their own category, but there was one physicist, one microbiologist, one chemist, and eight engineers (all in the House, with the exception of one Senator who is an engineer). There were also ~20 physicians and seven software company executives.

16 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 9:09 am

, but I view it is mostly positive; these are people who at least ostensibly care about actual policy and have experience working on the details and cooperating with other staffers.

That’s touching.

I know a decent man who’s an aide to a U.S. Senator. He’s employed in that trade because someone was willing to hire him and sought employment therein his income in his previous trade fluctuated a great deal and he wanted a more steady income for his wife and children. I think he was about 50 when he landed that job.

17 PD Shaw January 9, 2016 at 11:49 am

I’ve questioned how many lawyer Congressmen ever practiced law significantly. On the one end, there are career politicians who received law degrees (either earned or honorary) while service, like Robert Byrd. On the other end, there are people who clearly saw law degree as merely signaling or an opportunity to meet people that would allow them to run for office. Some of these may have practiced only a year or two, or went directly to work in public administration where they never drafted a will or tried a case. Obama has really very little legal experience of note, as he was a low-billing associate in a large city practice for a few years, that quickly migrated into politics and teaching.

I think the problem here is that legal experience hones skills of close-reading, rhetoric, persuasion of undecided, and compromise. Public policy is not a particular domain of the law.

18 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 12:01 pm

Barney Frank never practiced. upChuck Schumer never practiced. Ted Kennedy practiced for five months Tom Harkin practiced for 18 months. Kennedy’s sandwich-making buddy Christopher Dodd practiced for about 18 months. Slow Joe Biden, BO, and Michelle Antoinette practiced about 3 or 4 years each, all told. (Slow Joe’s skeezy son Hunter also never practiced; his lucrative career has consisted of a deft leveraging of connections).

19 Jan January 9, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Are you implying that most powerful [insert childish pejorative] Republicans with law degrees practiced extensively?

20 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 2:29 pm

No. The vapid Mr. McConnell has a similar history as a nominal lawyer, as did his predecessor once removed, Trent Lott. Robert Dole’s time in law practice was spent entirely as the corporation counsel for a small county (itself an elective position); presumably the positions he’s held in the last two decades were influence-peddling jobs. Howard Baker was a working lawyer (which presumably included a great deal of lobbying in his later years) for 40-odd years (v. 20-odd years in political office). You have some people with law degrees who seem to have been preparing for business careers rather than politics (Eric Cantor and Mitt Romney, to name two).

21 reed January 9, 2016 at 7:33 am

I think it’s pretty likely that the reduction of the percentage of lawyers in an institution dedicated to law-making is not just correlation but part of the causation narrative that explains the failure of Congress to solve social and economic problems by means of passing laws. Duh! Who could possibly think that being a PR “expert” is useful to applying law to solve policy problems? It might be useful to the business of getting elected. That’s not the same as governing, an assertion that should need no additional proof.

22 rayward January 9, 2016 at 9:03 am

Generalists. That’s what a lawyer once was, someone with a firm grounding in history and philosophy, a little knowledge about many things, access to the resources to become something of an expert on a few things, and the power of intellect to analyze and comprehend and to communicate and persuade. In other words, the model for representative government. That’s why presidents, of the nation and many companies, have relied on the counsel of the lawyer. More recently, however, lawyers have become increasingly specialized, expert on a few things rather than a broad knowledge about many things, a distrust of history and philosophy (or ignorance of it) rather than a firm grounding in it. I am old enough and have been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the best lawyers in my state from the era of the generalists, almost all of them gone now, replaced by lawyers with much more specialized knowledge and skills and lacking the grounding that made the lawyer the model for representative government.

Inequality. That’s what has changed the most: lawyers, like bankers, have benefited from increasing inequality, as those with wealth rely on the counsel of lawyers to keep their wealth. Sure, the generalists of the prior era enjoyed a comfortable income, but nothing compared to the incomes enjoyed today by the lawyers who service the needs of the wealthy. For them, what’s the allure of government service, other than to protect the economic interests of their patrons.

23 Art Deco January 9, 2016 at 9:04 am

You mean the odds that a member of Congress will be a lawyer now exceeds that for the bourgeois workforce in general by a factor of only 30?

What you’re neglecting is that federal expenditure in 1880 might have accounted for 1.5% of gross domestic product (concentrated in the payroll for the military and the postal service). What you’re also neglecting would be the opportunities for political action through lawfare.

24 Paul D. Carrington January 11, 2016 at 10:27 am

Please observe that Congress works less well than it used to. One reason is that there are fewer Senators and Congressmen who are professionally experienced in dispute resolution.

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