This year, a lawyer and businessman are facing off for a position that has been dominated by lawyers — the presidency of the United States. On Oct. 9, the candidates will debate at Washington University in St. Louis. It will be one of the only times the candidates appear together on stage.
While businessperson candidates have a slight historical edge against lawyers in head-to-head presidential contests, the vast majority of people in top political positions have a background in law. Law professionals also continue to capture congressional seats and top Cabinet positions. But does this abundance of lawyers in government mean law professionals are a better fit to serve as president?
Lawyers, Businesspeople or Neither?
According to a 2016 study from Yale University’s Nicholas Robinson, 59 percent of U.S. presidents have had a background in law, and most of our top government officials were lawyers as well. Since 1945, 46 percent of Congress has also been lawyers. According to Robinson, lawyers have been more likely than the average citizen to become politicians for two main reasons: They have the means to run for office and they are more interested in creating new policies and laws. Additionally, he theorizes that those with a legal education are prepared to run for office because of their backgrounds in public speaking, debate and knowledge of policy.
Vice President (Out of 47)
Secretaries of State (Out of 66)
Treasury Secretaries (Out of 74)
However, the number of lawyers in higher government positions has been declining since the 1960s. This is in part because politics as a profession has gained popularity, with more people moving straight to positions that feed directly into public office, such as congressional aides or civic organizers. That said, four of the past 10 presidents had legal experience, including Barack Obama.
Historically (and today), about a quarter of public servants have worked in the business sector. Among U.S. presidents, eight have been businesspeople (18 percent), and six of them were elected in the past 100 years.
Businesspeople and lawyers have squared off as candidates of the two major parties seven times. Businesspeople won four of these contests. Most lawyer candidates face other lawyers (this has happened 15 times), and candidates who were neither lawyers nor businessmen have represented a range of professions, including writing, acting and teaching, though many had military experience.
It is difficult to objectively judge presidential success, but presidential approval ratings give us a sense of the public's perception of how effective a president is. Because public opinion fluctuates, we decided to look at each president's average approval rating over the course of his presidency and his approval rating upon exiting (once the public has had the opportunity to judge the president's full time in office). Presidential approval ratings have only existed since the mid-1900s, so it is impossible to draw a full historical conclusion of how businessmen presidents rank against lawyer presidents. But since businessman Harry S. Truman, lawyer presidents have higher exit approval ratings, and average ratings during presidencies are essentially tied between the two professions.
We can also look to historians to evaluate presidential success. Every year, The Washington Post features a ranking of presidents, according to the highest overall ratings from more than 150 members of the American Political Science Association’s Presidents & Executive Politics section. The rankings are based on a score aggregated by many factors, including legislative skill, diplomatic skill, integrity and military skill. Of the top presidents who generally make the short list, most were lawyers, and only Truman was a businessman. Conversely, since 1928, the only three presidents voted out of office after one term had business backgrounds.
In-office approval rating
Exit approval rating
Whether you want to be president or a politician at any level, history proves that an understanding of law can help. The vast majority of political positions have historically been held by lawyers. Many of our country’s greatest leaders had a background in law that helped put them on their path to reshaping policies, protecting the rights of underrepresented groups, and guiding the country in times of challenge and instability. Even if you don’t imagine yourself in the history books as one of these leaders, a legal education like a JD or a master’s degree in legal studies can prepare you for a challenging and fulfilling career.
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