WASHINGTON — The next president is most likely to have a law degree, but hold the lawyer jokes. That might not be such a bad thing. The three leading candidates in each party have law degrees and most have practiced law. Some are weaving their legal careers into their campaign pitches, squeezed between the action verbs and take-charge rhetoric about running states, cities, businesses and the Olympics.
In a sense, it's a return to tradition. Lawyers dominated the presidency until the 20th century, when voters became enamored with the "decider" model: those who ran on their executive experience. That led to a series of governors (some with law degrees) in the White House, culminating in the CEO-style tenure of George W. Bush — a former governor and the first president with an MBA.
Yet management credentials don't ensure a well-oiled administration. Bush has been widely criticized for his handling of the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and general decision-making.
Now the country appears poised to return to the lawyer-president model. Six prospective lawyer-presidents top the polls: Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.
Romney also is a former Massachusetts governor with an MBA and is betting mostly on his appeal as a CEO. Law school was "a long, long time ago," he says in an interview. More relevant, he says, are his 35 years in business and public leadership posts such as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
In the sound bite age, such credentials are an easier sell than legal skills such as analyzing things from many angles.
"Hard-charging CEO deciders are very appealing to the American electorate," says James Pfiffner, a presidential historian at George Mason University. "Saying 'I can look at all sides of the issues' is really important, but it doesn't impress voters as much."
Ditto for trying to make an exciting pitch out of "I'm a good negotiator" or "I know the Constitution."
That's before you even get to society's view of lawyers. The jokes. The stereotypes ("ambulance chasers"). The Shakespeare T-shirts ("The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers"). The mistrust.
Only 18% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last December rated lawyers high or very high on honesty and ethical standards. The good news for lawyers is that those surveyed rated CEOs the same.
Twenty-five of 43 presidents have had law degrees, but the American Bar Association says the proportion has fallen from 76% through the 19th century to 39% in the 20th century. Some recent presidents have perpetuated negative views of lawyers: Richard Nixon resigned during the Watergate scandal and Bill Clinton was impeached.
But lawyer-presidents also have included Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. "When you look at the most successful presidents, many of them have been lawyers," says Paul Finkelman, a historian and legal scholar at the Albany (N.Y.) Law School.
Beating power in court
On the campaign trail, you'd hardly notice that Romney has a law degree. By contrast, Edwards' legal career is central to his populist pitch.
The former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee wrote in an essay at age 11 that he wanted to "protect innocent people" from what he called "blind justice," meaning injustice. As a personal injury lawyer, he won landmark victories for victims of medical mistakes and faulty products, including $25 million for a little girl who was disemboweled by a swimming pool drain.
In his second presidential bid, Edwards often cites his legal experience as evidence that he is best suited to wrest power from "big insurance companies, big drug companies, big oil companies."
"I have been standing up to these people my entire life," Edwards said in the CNN/YouTube debate in July. "I have been fighting them my entire life in courtrooms — and beating them."
The Republican most identified with the law so far is Thompson, a trial lawyer, former federal prosecutor, former counsel to Senate committees on Watergate, foreign relations and intelligence, former Tennessee senator and fictional Manhattan District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's Law & Order.
Laying groundwork for his formal entry into the race today, Thompson has offered opinions on many legal issues: the deterrent effect of the death penalty, the rights of localities to pass laws on illegal immigration, eminent domain rulings that threaten Americans' "right of ownership" and New York gun laws that he says infringe on the Second Amendment.
"As an idealistic teen-ager, I could think of nothing more inspiring than the notion of representing a just cause against the most powerful forces in the country, including the government," Thompson said on his website.
'Making people's lives better'
Obama spent three years after college helping a low-income Chicago community cope with plant shutdowns. He left for law school because "I wanted to understand how the law should work for those in need," he said in February. He became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, and then returned to Chicago to practice civil rights law and teach constitutional law.
That choice is now highlighted in an Obama TV ad as a key to his character. "It was inspiring, absolutely inspiring to see someone as brilliant as Barack Obama, as successful, someone who could've written his ticket on Wall Street, take all of the talent and all of the learning and decide to devote it to the community and to making people's lives better," one of his professors, Laurence Tribe, says in the ad.
Bill Clinton often talks about his wife's legal work for children and the poor. After law school, he says in a video, "She turned down all the lucrative job offers and instead took a job at the Children's Defense Fund because she wanted to help poor children."
By 1977, Hillary Clinton was a corporate litigator at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. She spent 25 years there as her family's main breadwinner while her husband rose to the governorship and a top salary of $35,000. National Law Journal twice named her one of the country's 100 most influential lawyers, noting her major clients — such as Maybelline and Tysons Foods — along with her work for the Children's Defense Fund and the Legal Services Corporation.
The Rose firm was a source of pain and controversy for the Clinton administration. One partner, Vince Foster, the deputy chief White House counsel, committed suicide. Another, associate attorney general Webb Hubbell, went to prison for mail fraud and tax evasion in a case involving the bilking of Rose and its clients. Hillary Clinton faced a grand jury in 1996, after Rose billing records sought by prosecutors for two years surfaced in her White House quarters.
Not surprisingly, that long chapter of Clinton's life is missing from her campaign narrative. "There's nothing at the Rose law firm that helps her. Nothing and no one," says Susan Estrich, a Democratic strategist and law professor at the University of Southern California.
The CEO lawyers
Giuliani was associate attorney general of the United States and a U.S. attorney in New York before he became New York City mayor in 1993. As a prosecutor, he went after organized crime, drugs and white-collar crime.
His pre-mayoral career meshes with his image as a hard-nosed enemy of crime and terrorism. As liberal lawyer-blogger Glenn Greenwald has written, Giuliani has a "talent for expressing prosecutor-like righteous anger toward 'bad people.' "
Giuliani decided on law school when he was a senior at Manhattan College. At first the idea of being a prosecutor seemed "harsh," he told the Academy of Achievement, an education group, in 2003, but he came to see it as a way to protect people, deter crime and "create more respect for the law."
Being a prosecutor is a good fit for a Republican candidate because it signals you are tough on crime, says Michael Dorf, author of No Litmus Test, a book on law and politics. Even better, Dorf says, is not to be a lawyer, because many Republicans think a lawyer's job is to "make it hard to do business."
"If you're a Republican who's a lawyer, you want to be Romney," says Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Columbia Law School.
That's Romney's view, too. He says there's a perception that some lawyers are "enriched by suing people, suing doctors. That doesn't sit well with a lot of people, myself included." He never planned to be a lawyer; he says his father convinced him that a law degree would help his business career.
Romney hammers at his man-in-charge credentials on the trail: CEO of an investment firm, governor of Massachusetts and — in one of his ads — "rescuer" of the scandal-plagued, financially struggling 2002 Winter Olympics.
However, his legal training emerges when he discusses how he'd make White House decisions.
In law school, Romney says in the interview, you learn to analyze opposing views. "I like that kind of a decision-making process," he says. "You look for people who disagree with you. The best way to get to the bottom of an issue is to have people … bring their strongest arguments together and do battle."
You can't make decisions, he adds, "by listening to only … your friends or listening to your gut. Your gut … is often wrong."
That seems to echo criticisms of the Bush administration. So does Romney think Bush has soured voters on the idea of an MBA president? He declines to comment.
How lawyer skills would help
Critiques of Bush's administration have focused on mismanagement and flawed policymaking, such as a lack of openness to varied views. Lawyers say legal training might have helped Bush.
Law students are taught to "break a problem down into its component parts" and "avoid fallacies in logical reasoning," Dorf says. They also learn all sides of an issue. In moot court, for instance, they must be able to argue either side.
"Lawyers are well equipped to analyze the pros and cons of most policy positions," says Sandy D'Alemberte, former president of Florida State University and former dean of its law school.
A legal practice also provides useful experience to future presidents, lawyers say. They cite negotiating and communication skills, teamwork, familiarity with the Constitution and government, respect for institutions, crisis management and even that CEO aura many lawyers find so elusive.
"You've got to have the ego of a surgeon," says William Neukom, president of the American Bar Association and ex-general counsel at Microsoft. "You've got the family farm on the line. What is your strategic plan? Who do you call as a witness? You've got to have that self-confidence to move forward."
A private practice, however, can create political trouble because lawyers don't always choose their clients. "The whole idea of being a lawyer is that everybody deserves one," Estrich says. "We don't judge a lawyer by saying you represent bad clients. But guilt by association is the name of the game in politics."
That came up in Thompson's first Senate race, Thompson says, when an opponent argued that he "has even represented criminals."
Pfiffner says hostility toward lawyers is real, but often fleeting. "Everybody hates lawyers until they need one," he says.
Need them or not, here they come.