January 22, 2013
Of the 24 U.S. presidents who served before 1900, 18 were lawyers, but only two attended law school
By Professor Morton Horwitz ’67
The following is one of a series of six essays on law and leadership written by Harvard Law faculty for the Fall 2012 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin.
Does legal training prepare one for the presidency? The question is quite difficult to answer, given the very different training most lawyers received in the 19th century. The vast majority of 19th-century lawyers studied for admission to the bar on their own, or under the guidance of a mentor, or as an apprentice to a practicing lawyer. Of the 24 chief executives who served before 1900, 18 (75 percent) were lawyers, but only two, Rutherford B. Hayes (Harvard Law School) and William McKinley (Albany Law School), attended law school instead of apprenticing. Until President Barack Obama ’91, President Hayes LL.B. 1845 was the only chief executive to have attended HLS.
Since 1900, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of lawyers who ascended to the presidency. Of the 19 presidents who have served since the turn of the century, only eight (about 42 percent) have been lawyers. All but Calvin Coolidge, who apprenticed, attended law school. Except for President (and future Chief Justice) Taft, who returned home to study at Cincinnati Law School, the remaining lawyer presidents attended national law schools: FDR (Columbia), Nixon (Duke), Ford (Yale), Clinton (Yale) and Obama (Harvard).
Can we compare the lawyer presidents to the nonlawyers who became chief executives? If we consult one ranking of presidents prepared from polling academic historians and political scientists, we learn that three of those ranked in the top 10 (Lincoln, FDR and Jefferson) were lawyers while five of those ranked in the bottom 10 (Buchanan, Pierce, Fillmore, Tyler and Nixon) were lawyers. All but Nixon became lawyers through apprenticeship.
Horwitz’s books include “The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice” (Hill & Wang, 1998) and “The Transformation of American Law, 1870-1960: The Crisis of Legal Orthodoxy” (Oxford, 1992).
From the Dean: Why do law school graduates become leaders?
Why do many law school graduates become leaders? Individuals with legal training lead government, business, civic activities, and nonprofit organizations in the United States and around the world. Of course, leaders of law firms, law schools, and offices of government lawyers have legal training, but often so do leaders of companies, universities and countries. I think that a combination of self-selection, features of the law school experience, and particular elements of law itself contributes to the sizable presence across society of lawyers as leaders—and as effective ones, at that. ...
Read the full essay on law and leadership by Dean Martha Minow in the Fall 2012 issue of the Harvard Law Bulletin.