From Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, lawyers have long been associated with elected office in the United States. In fact, since this country’s Independence, more than half of all presidents, vice presidents and members of Congress have come from a law background. Yet, in a recent article in the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession’s digital magazine The Practice titled “Declining Dominance: Lawyers in the US Congress,” Nick Robinson, a Center resident fellow, showed that lawyers’ once unquestioned supremacy in federal elected office is in a slow but steady retreat.
In the mid-19th century, around 80% of members of the U.S. Congress were lawyers. By the 1960s, this number had dropped to about 60%. Today, just under 40% of members of the U.S. Congress are lawyers. The presidency has witnessed a similar pattern. While about 60% of all U.S. presidents since Independence have been lawyers, just four of the last 10 presidents have been lawyers.
Law may still be the major occupational background for our national leaders, but in general, lawyers’ electoral fortunes are waning. This does not necessarily mean lawyers’ political power is declining overall. For example, lawyers may still have a disproportionate role in lobbying, policymaking and civil society or as thought leaders.
Charting lawyers’ changing prominence in these areas would require separate studies. Nonetheless, it is clear there is a decline in the proportion of lawyers in Congress — and this has potentially wide-ranging ramifications for a legal profession that has long viewed representing Americans in elected office as central to its identity.