How left-leaning are lawyers?

Adam Bonica, Adam S. Chilton, and Maya Sen have an extensive new paper (pdf) on this subject:

American lawyers lean to the left of the ideological spectrum. To help place this in context, the mean DIME score among the attorney population is -0.31 compared to -0.05 for the entire population of donors. Moreover, some 62% of the sample of attorneys are positioned to the left of the midpoint between the party means for members of Congress. Morover, the modal CFscore is in the center-left. This places the average American lawyer’s ideology close to the ideology of Bill Clinton. To be more precise, the modal CFscore for American lawyers is -0.52 and Bill Clinton’s CFscore is -0.68. This confirms prior scholarship and journalism that has argued that the legal profession is liberal on balance. To our knowledge, however, this figure represents the most comprehensive picture of the ideology of American lawyers ever assembled.

There is however a (quite slight) bimodal nature to the distribution and a cluster of right-leaning attorneys has views similar to those of Mitt Romney.  Not so many lawyers are true extremists, at least not in this data set.  Figure 2 on p.19 will not reproduce for me but it is an excellent picture of the data, including comparisons with other professions.

We learn also that female attorneys are considerably more liberal than male attorneys, but the number of years of work predicts a conservative pull.  Being a law firm partner also predicts views which are more conservative than average.  If you consider “Big Law” attorneys, while they are overall to the Left, they are more conservative on average than the cities they live in, such as NYC or Los Angeles.  Lawyers in Washington, D.C. are especially left-leaning.

The top fourteen law schools all have distributions which lean to the Left (pp.28-29), and UC Berkeley has the most left-leaning alumni.  The five law schools, of the fifty surveyed, with right-leaning alumni are University of Oklahoma, Texas A&M University, University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, and Brigham Young University.  Pages 38-40 of the paper rank different major law firms by how left- or right-leaning their employees are.

Oil and gas, M&A, and energy lawyers are relatively conservative, see p.45.  Entertainment lawyers are relatively left-leaning, same for civil rights and personal injury lawyers.  Don’t even ask about law professors.  Public defenders are far more left-leaning than prosecutors, though prosecutors are still more left-leaning than lawyers as a whole.

This paper is interesting throughout.


How much of this is due to their being lawyers and how much is other characteristics? For instance, how do lawyers compare to the set of people with advanced degrees (since almost every lawyer has a J.D.)?

Or indeed, how do they compare with human beings?

Clever lad. Not bad for an economist.

Lawyers see a lot of the sausage getting made, and they learn about the sausage making process through time in law school. So they are likely more cognizant of the role of luck and chance in life, and their past cast studies are long lists of corporate malfeasance and attempts to evade justice. It is not surprising they then lean more left than the overall population.

I'm guessing you don't know any labor and employment attorneys in California. Ask them what constitutes culpable corporate behavior and the'll probably say, "hiring someone."

Lawyers see their paychecks go up the more sausage there is. Of course they favor big government creating lots and lots of sausage. Luck and chance have nothing to do with getting rich off of sausage-making. It's all about having the money to hire the lawyers and lobbyists to insure that you get lots of gravy on that sausage.

And lawyers are arrogant enough to think that having lawyers in the role of judges and lawyers in the role of bureaucrats and lawyers in the role of legislators create byzantine rules is the best way to dictate how society must operate.

I would expect postgrad degree holders to lean pretty far left - the vast majority of them are purchased by people who work in an industry that automatically pays you more for having one, and that industry attracts leftists. GSS data bears that out - people with a bachelor's degree are much more likely to be Republican than Democrat; the reverse is true for those with postgrad degrees.

According to the pictures in the paper, lawyers look pretty much like any other highly-qualified profession with a reputation for leaning left. Their political donations look like those for academics, media people and tech people. Medical doctors and bankers tilt the other way, although less strongly.

The ideological distribution of medical doctors is really strange looking.

You should check out the prior Bonica paper on the ideology of physicians. Striking graph comparing the ideological leanings of different physicians by specialty income.

Whoops forgot the link. Here it is:

How much of that is explained by the sex of the doctors?

The ideological bent of the medical profession is interesting. There few fields of work that are as heavily regulated as medicine. Medical schools have to be accredited, and doctors have to be licensed, certified, and granted privileges to work. All of this structure is enforced by the government, and has been for about one century. This limits entry into the profession. Now we all acknowledge that these walls were created to protect the public, but these regulatory barriers certainly serve to increase the income of the insiders. It seems to me that doctors would support politicians who strengthen the barriers to competition; I wonder if there is any way to measure this?

Not if they take the barriers for granted, and if politicians on both sides have not dared tackle them for several decades.

How much of it being explained by the sex of the doctors is explained by male doctors being more likely to be partners in a practice (or sole physician), and female doctors being more likely to be hospital employers?

Hospital employees, of course.

Actually, now that I have had more time to think about it, the explanation maybe simple. Doctors lean right because lawyers lean left. Looking at the impact of specialty, I see more right leaning by doctors who are more likely to be impacted by tort litigation. Naturally, they see lawyers as opponents. Lawyers lean left; therefore, they lean right. The gender distribution of physicians parallels the malpractice exposure as well.

Doctors produce services, as a rule. Lawyers rent-seek and extort from productive sectors in society, very commonly.

The services they produce are often of dubious value, because they are either can't or won't practice evidence based medicine.

Is that true? I'd have thought it was the other way around. But that's just based on my assumption that GP and pediatrics are more female specialties, not any real data.

Non-lawyers around lawyers pretend to be stupid because that reduces perceived culpability (and reduces perceived ability to pay large fees). Non-doctors around doctors pretend to be really smart because that increases access to desired prescriptions and increases the amount of time the doctors are willing to spend thinking about you, which almost everyone wants. Being surrounded by people who pretend to be dumber than they are makes you subconsciously favor non-Hayekian solutions, the opposite leads to the opposite and better tendency. Also, male doctors with high SMV are, next to NFL quarterbacks and MLB pitchers and talented classical scholars and male military academy grads, just about the most right-wing demographic in the country. I don't know many female military academy grads, maybe they are right-wing too.

It sounds like you don't know many people at all. Must be lonely down in that basement.

Sam at 10:21 - cryptic and humorless insults add little to any on-line discussion, except as a basis for adjusting upwards one's prior guess at the number of people reading a site who think cryptic insults are worthwhile. My guess is you have a small supply of them ready to go for anyone who mentions SMV or NFL quarterbacks, but that is only a guess.

Shouldn't you be prepping your roofies for tonight?

Q.E.D.. Quod erat demonstrandum.

When I realized that every lawyer I met had read and was inspired by "To Kill A Mockingbird" I realized that being liberal was very much in the fabric of what made a person become a lawyer. When you "want to make a difference" you tend to be drawn to the professions where you will have that opportunity, and the law (along with teaching and government) is an easy choice.

I suppose the fact I didn't choose law and yet still feel like my work makes a difference in the world jades me to the idea that these professions can allow for more meaningful lives than others.

"I suppose the fact I didn’t choose law and yet still feel like my work makes a difference in the world jades me to the idea that these professions can allow for more meaningful lives than others."

Amen! From someone with a math PhD who has worked as a teacher.

This point you make is something about which I have ranted about to my friends: doctors and lawyers seem to be told in their respective professional schools that they're "making a difference" and that not only does their professional school tell them the information they need to know in order to be a good doctor/lawyer, their professional school also challenges them and makes them grow as human beings. Meanwhile, other people (in a variety of fields) hear stories "for me, going to work is like getting to play with numbers" or "it's nothing special, just a way to make a buck." The end result of all this is that lawyers (and doctors, but we're on lawyers at the moment) feel like they're on a special mission from God (a la Jake and Elwood), while the rest of us don't have the courage of our convictions because we've been told our work has no special meaning.

The best lack all conviction
While the worst are full of passionate intensity.

You know who else feels they are on a special missions? Police, firefighters, teachers and their unions.

And politicians. I remember how Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was running for governor because he wanted to "give something back".

I would Barack Obama, but I'm not always quite sure what mission he's on.

How about US Military Special Ops?
Maybe being on the tip of the spear is by definition so 'special' so that you don't really care to remake the world. Or have any desires to turn the spears into pink hippos because spears are social constructs...

I think Dan's observation is a good one, and I think that a lot of the rampant dissatisfaction in the profession comes from the fact that so many of these idealistic lawyers inevitably end up in some some paper-pushing job that pays the bills but provides no moral weight.

Just deserts.

If I understand the data set correctly it is based on donations reported to the FEC. If I were a cynic I might assume that lawyers (as well as doctors, accountants, etc.) feel that they get better returns on investing in left leaning candidates than they do in right leaning candidates and that their own political biases have nothing to do with the checks that they write. If you are a rent seeker you would want more legislation, which would provide more opportunities to rent seek. This would also explain the bi-modal distribution, centrist candidates are not going to move the regulatory needle all that much, nor would the extreme candidates. To a professional rent seeker there is not much downside to Obama/Romney election, far worse to see an Obama/Ron Paul election.

I don't think it's as explicit as that, but I think you're generally right. More than anything, people need to feel like their work is at least somewhat meaningful. Many if not most lawyers (especially those at big firms) work primarily with huge, complex federal regulatory schemes. If you spend ALL your time helping people navigate the tax code, you would commit suicide if you really believed that the tax code was 99.99% deadweight loss on society. I would argue that the more conservative or libertarian a person is, the larger the percentage of the current laws on the books he or she thinks are unjustifiable. To believe they are justified, you have to have favor a high degree of paternalism, something liberals are much more comfortable with, and find Hayek less compelling such that you think that comprehensive top-down regulatory schemes can actually achieve their ends (again, something much more common among liberals than those on the right-hand side of the spectrum).

I think this also explains to a large degree why the more prestigious (i.e. more lucrative) firms are basically all liberal -- nobody works 90 hour weeks for an unsympathetic large corporate client helping them jump through regulatory hoops unless they on net believe this is the way things should work.

I help people navigate the tax code and would happily retire- not commit suicide- if Congress axed the whole thing and replaced it with a progressive consumption tax (especially if the replacement produced less revenue).

Essentially, we private tax advisors do the government's job, explain the insanely complicated, haphazard rules and tell clients "you can't do that" or "you HAVE to do this". Only a small part of a normal practitioners work is inventing the Double Dutch.

Do enough lawyers make political donations to make this an accurate reflection of lawyers in general?

I can't believe I mistyped my own name.

Trial lawyers (plaintiff) definitely contribute aggressively as an investment in politicians. Very successful investment considering that trial lawyers dominate the list of highest paid lawyers.

But business lawyers don't profit from donations directly. Their clients directly handle the lobbying, investment by contribution stuff. Though I see more law firms acting as business lobbyists, and I guarantee their partners contribute.

Very successful investment considering that trial lawyers dominate the list of highest paid lawyers.
For now. When we take over, they'll be the first ones shot.

You're gonna need a lawyer after you start murdering people, Art

Don't worry, he's just an internet tough guy.

He is talking about executing them, not murdering them.


Don't pretend to be Yed, Ted. We are on to you.

His name is Yed Craik

Page 16: "To ground the discussion and to provide additional context, Figure 1 includes the CFscores of several well -known political figures. On the far left is Alan Grayson — a Congressman from Florida know for his outspoken liberal views. On the far right is Ron Paul — a former presidential candidate and Congressman from Texas known for his libertarian
positions..." Just guessing the authors have yet to read Arnold Kling. The article is a fine contribution to the literature illustrating the inanity of putting political ideologies on a single scale. It doesn't even work well if you read "ideology" as "tribal affiliation." That lawyers tend to give money to Democrats is not exactly an earthshaking revelation but its about all you get in this piece. Meanwhile Robin Hanson's quest goes unfulfilled: "I seek empirically-well-founded theoretically-coherent descriptions of WHAT exactly is the difference between left and right points of view." Other than group identities based upon whose status you want to raise or lower, the concept of "left" and "right" serves very little purpose. The orange and grape sodas of statism. Different labels, but high-fructose corn syrup delivery vehicles nevertheless.

The article is a fine contribution to the literature illustrating the inanity of putting political ideologies on a single scale.

How well correlated are your posited cross-cutting scales? Ron Paul's "Liberty Caucus" had all of seven members of Congress, only three of which supported his candidacy. You might have found a modest collection of members a generation ago who were labor and welfare oriented but skeptical of Democratic Party orthodoxies on most other issues (John LaFalce was one, Dante Fascell another), but that dispensation's gone. Alan Grayson is distinguished principally by his affection for strange investment schemes, his horrible manners, his horrible temper, and general viciousness. His political ideology is not that distinguished.

Ron Paul’s “Liberty Caucus” had all of seven members of Congress, only three of which supported his candidacy.

Sure, but there's a pretty consistent cluster of 40-70 House Republicans that vote in favor of respecting state medical and even recreational marijuana laws, and their views are highly correlated on a number of other libertarian issues (opposing sugar subsidies, etc.). About 20 of them (a subset of the group) consistently vote for withdrawal from Iraq and Syria.. On some issues, such as hemp they get more, around 100-120. The same group clusters in other civil liberties votes general requiring more warrants or intelligence reform or reforming civil forfeiture.

You're mistaking some granular policy disagreements for a political tendency. One also does not customarily use the word 'consistently' to describe one vote. There is no contrary argument in the Republican caucus for sugar subsidiesl their are contrary interests. About half the Senate Republican caucus are willing to be sock-puppets for Chamber of Commerce lobbyists. There is no principle behind that other than cash-my-check. The question of whether or not you 'respect' state laws on this or that incorporates one's understanding of the boundary between inter-state and intra-state commerce. Even if one believes that the body of case law on that subject is humbug, that boundary is not always unambiguous.

Something something status, signaling, tribes, plains of Africa.


"Other than group identities based upon whose status you want to raise or lower, the concept of “left” and “right” serves very little purpose."

Attitudes toward the welfare state and economic inequality are pretty clearly different between left and right.

By the way, this is consistent with Robin Hanson's own stated view that "political ideology, like most ideology, is a lot more about who should get respect than it is about abstract principles of governance."

Liberals tend to respect underdogs and see them as victims of systematic injustice or plain old bad luck. Hence their support for safety nets and aversion to economic inequality. Conservatives tend to respect successful people and see underdogs as victims of their own poor decisions or lack of ambition. Hence their suspicion of welfare and relative lack of concern over economic inequality.

It is undoubtedly correct that lawyers lean left. One interesting consequence of this is that in states that appoint their judges through a so-called "merit selection" process, the input of the legal community is typically crucial, meaning that the judges are frequently well to the left in their outlook of the general populace.

Thomas Sowell has offered that what we call 'liberal' or 'progressive' can be understood as the preferences of articulate people. (Often the vanity of articulate people). Well, lawyers yap a great deal, are commonly shifty if not sociopathic, and commonly barely numerate.

What does he have to say about guys who spend their lives pontificating in the comment's section of obscure blogs?

Golf pros are uniformly Republican. It is a matter of no interest because golf pros are not a social problem. Lawyers very commonly are.

Golf pros spend all their time at exclusive country clubs, their major sponsors want them to attract rich white men, and they are concerned about low taxes on their winnings. Why is it a surprise that golf pros are conservative?

I assume certain Hollywood actors are concerned about low taxes on their earnings, want rich white men investing in their films, and hang out in opulent circumstances. Not too many who made a name for themselves after 1965 are Republicans.

Bill Clinton is a carny who, through circumstance, rose above his station in life. He doesn't have an ideology, he has an attitude. Stripped of his nonsense, his attitude is hooray for me and f*ck you.

It isn't "f!*k you", it's 'you better put some ice on that'.

Inspired description of the President, though.

One interesting comparison might be between "lawyers" of the Clinton / Schumer stripe who never actually practice law and working lawyers.

I think you misspelled 'Donald Trump'.

I hate liberals as much as the next guy, however you have to be blind not to realize Clinton's accomplishments and talents. He came from nothing and went on to a Rhodes scholarship. That's impressive. If you have ever went to hear the man field questions you would know that his understanding of a variety of topics is (was?) of amazing breadth and depth. He is one of the most talented people of our time.

It is sad that his talent is partially wasted by his ideology, but no one is perfect.

Nothing? He was a small-town petit bourgeois. His mother had a skilled job (nurse-anaesthetist) and his stepfather was a partner in family businesses. Both his Clinton relations and Blythe relations prospered in businesses of the sort you see in towns the size of Hot Springs - auto parts, car dealerships, &c. The family was quite provincial and regrettably vulgar and his step-father and mother had short comings (aesthetic and moral) you seldom see in that class in society. Still, they were passably well-off in that time and place, all things considered.

Compare Clinton to Gary Hart or Richard Gephardt (both from wage-earning families), or Jesse Jackson (ditto, but better off materially and with more agreeable employment as his step-father was a postman, not a railway worker or delivery man). Compare him to Robert Dole, whose family was in business but compelled to live in their basement and rent out the house during the Depression. It is true that the amount of formal education Clinton received would not have been a general expectation at that time and place. Still, many and perhaps most presidential candidates have backgrounds as unremarkable as Clinton's socially (though their fathers weren't commonly mean drunks and their brothers stayed out of the drug trade). Tom Harkin, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum grew up in wage-earning families. John Edwards' upbringing was half working class and half middle class, and his father was always employed in production. Dr. Alan Keyes and Dr. Newton LeRoy Gingrich were from military families, both fathers NCOs. Paul Tsongas had a small-business background. Pat Buchanan's father was an accountant with nine kids.

The interesting question is not "do lawyers lean left compared to the general population", because potential lawyers are not like the general population.

The interesting question is "do lawyers lean more left than liberal arts majors" because that is a good representative of potential lawyers.

"The left" is into government circumscribing and controlling every aspect of everyone's life. Lawyers operate on both the government side and the people side so naturally they're leftist. Lawyers can't exist in a condition of anarchy.

The left as it is known today is interested in expanding the role of government. Lawyers make money off of these expansions. People* respond to incentives.

*a generous, though technically accurate description of lawyers.

Lawyers in Washington, D.C. are especially left-leaning.

Probably true for all professions. Incentives matter.

And I thought that many of my colleagues in law school (in Germany though) were right-wing reactionary assholes.

Comments for this post are closed