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Why Lawyers Rule the U.S. and What It Says About Our Culture

As far back as the 1830s, French historian Alexis de Toqueville observed the prevalence of lawyers in America's ruling elite. Now, a century and a half later, nothing's changed. If anything, lawyers holding public office are more prominent than ever in the Obama administration, with both the president, the vice president and many top cabinet members holding JDs.

So what is it about the American culture that attracts lawyers to politics and accounts for their ascendancy? That's one of the topics considered in this fascinating piece, "There was a lawyer, an engineer, a politician," from The Economist (April 16, 2009), which examines professional paths to the top and how they vary by country.

As the article describes, some of the findings are predictable. In developing countries in Africa, the ruling classes are dominated by military leaders or guerilla chiefs who won power by overthrowing their predecessors by force. By contrast, in democracies, lawyers dominate, which isn't surprising either:

The law deals with the same sort of questions as politics: what makes a just society; the balance between liberty and security, and so on. Lawyerly skills -- marshalling evidence, appealing to juries, command of procedure -- transfer well to the political stage. So, sadly, does an obsession with process and a tendency to see things in partisan terms -- us or them, guilty or not guilty -- albeit in a spirit of loyalty to a system to which all defer. In common-law countries, the battleground of the court is of a piece with the adversarial, yet rule-bound, spirit of politics. Even in places with a Napoleonic code, lawyers abound. In Germany, a third of the Bundestag's members are lawyers. In France, nine of Nicolas Sarkozy's first cabinet of 16 were lawyers or law graduates, including the president, the prime minister and the finance minister, an ex-chairman of Baker & McKenzie, an American law firm.

By contrast, in communist countries, engineers are frequently prominent. In a country where education is controlled by the state, an objective discipline like engineering is less risky than political science. Moreover, as the article notes, "communist regimes of all stripes have long had a weakness for grandiose engineering projects." China is a prime example.

The former Soviet Union was also governed largely by engineers. But with its dissolution and the rise of independent republics with new democracies, businessmen are rising to power. According to a recent study, three factors have influenced businessmen to go into politics in post-Soviet countries:

Politics helps [businessmen] harm competitors; in new democracies, robber barons are often the only ones rich enough to finance election campaigns; and business people do not trust politicians to keep campaign promises because there is no real party discipline, so they go into politics themselves.

Finally, in mature democracies like Great Britain or the United States, politics itself is emerging as a career choice. For example, consider a lawyer like Bill Clinton who spent most of his post-law school career holding political office prior to becoming President.

So doctor, lawyer or chief -- which profession do you think is best suited to lead the country? Or does it matter?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 29, 2009 at 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (8)


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