February 19, 2004

Twenty-five of the forty-two men to have been President were, by profession, lawyers. For men and women whose ambitions aim towards a life in politics, the practice of law is a popular choice: both Kerry and Edwards are lawyers, and Bush famously was rejected when he applied to law school at the University of Texas. Although the education, training, and even the definition of what it is to be an attorney have changed during the history of the republic, it has from the outset been the career option most taken by politicians before they sought office.

Very few of the lawyers who became President, though, could truly be said to have "practiced" law. Clinton, for example, pretty much went straight into politics after law school, with a brief sojourn as a law professor, and I doubt FDR ever saw the inside of a courtroom. Kerry worked as a D.A. for a few years, but pretty much was angling for a career in public service from the moment he passed the bar. Being an attorney opens some doors for the would-be public servent, and a legal education exposes one to many of the same issues faced by politicians, but the actual nitty-gritty details of representing a client, building a practice, handling a caseload, and sweet-talking a jury, are well outside the norm for what someone whose ultimate goal is to run for high office.

That makes the case of John Edwards somewhat extraordinary. He is not just a lawyer. He was one of the top trial attorneys in America when he decided to run for the Senate in 1998. Not only was he gifted in court, but for most of his adult life, it was how he fed his family. Clearly, he practiced law because it was what he did for a living, not so that he could get placed on the fast track to the Presidency.

Thus, Edwards is the exception among lawyer-politicians, not the rule. Looking back at the men who preceded him, only a few stand out as having been skilled in the practice of law. Adams, of course, made his name in the pre-Revolutionary period representing British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and his son was an accomplished attorney himself. Lincoln, who incidentally never went to college, much less law school, secured some degree of wealth for his family representing anyone who could pay a retainer (including a few odd debtors in bankruptcy). Of the rest who actually practiced law, almost all of them worked at some level for the government, usually as prosecutors, except for Nixon, who started off as a low-level attorney in the government during WWII before joining a small transactional firm in Whittier.

Anyways, I hope to begin a study of the legal careers of Presidents, and eventually give you some idea as to what kind of practitioner someone like James Monroe or Chester Arthur was before they became Commander-in-Chief. In the meantime, if anyone can identify another President who was a trial lawyer between Honest Abe and Senator Edwards, I'd love to hear from you.

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