Which US Presidents Were Lawyers?

By Alison at Legal Language
Posted on 02/18/2011
In Legal Resources

us president lawyerAside from their election to the most powerful position in the US, Barack Obama, Richard Nixon and Thomas Jefferson all share another key accomplishment:

Each one studied and/or practiced law before they became US presidents.

In honor of Presidents Day, we’ll take a look at these three presidents and 22 others who progressed from reading law books to leading a country.

Famous US Lawyer-Presidents

Some of the US presidents who got their start in law are also among the most well-known. Although he never actually attended law school, Abraham Lincoln may well be one of the most famous lawyer-presidents. Lincoln was a self-taught attorney who learned all he needed to successfully practice by reading the law books and legal codes of the times.

Another famous early president, Andrew Jackson, also entered the legal profession as a self-taught lawyer.

Other US lawyer-presidents include Franklin Roosevelt, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama follows in the footsteps of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th president, as the second Harvard law graduate to make his way to the Oval Office. The Wall Street Journal provides a complete list of US presidents who came from a legal background.

How Law and Politics Go Hand-in-Hand

The fact that more than half of the US presidents have been involved in the law prior to taking office brings up the question: Why does legal experience serve as such a strong starting point for those interested in entering politics?

It’s not only future presidents who seem to benefit — many other politicians, from Rudy Giuliani to Hillary Clinton, hold law degrees. In practical terms, a legal career can set the stage for a political career by permitting a person to build a powerful reputation and make the right contacts — people who can help fund political campaigns down the line.

However, successful lawyers must also master certain skills that can be invaluable to the difficult job of US president. Logical thinking and reasoning abilities, the ability to build an effective argument and excellent speaking skills are all necessary traits of a great lawyer — and can all come in handy for a president, too!

Law School Dropouts & Other Paths to the White House

Although a majority of past US presidents — 25 out of 44 — have come from a background in the law, this doesn’t mean that a law degree is required to become president.

You can even become president if you’re a law school dropout, as demonstrated Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt. Truman studied law at the University of Missouri-Kansas School of Law, then called Kansas City Law School, but never earned a degree, while Roosevelt studied law at Columbia without ever completing his degree.

Many other presidents have come from a political background — for example, formerly holding a state office. George W. Bush’s pedigree included a stint as governor of Texas and an MBA. In fact, Bush was the first US president to hold an MBA.

While we may see more future leaders with business degrees, it’s highly likely that many more US presidents will have studied law.

Do you think that having experience as a lawyer helps a US president — or are some traits better left out of politics?

6 Responses to “Which US Presidents Were Lawyers?”

  1. Katherine at Legal Language Says:

    I think law is an excellent first step on the way to the presidency. Not only are the best lawyers excellent speakers and compelling arguers, but knowledge of the justice system will definitely come in handy when you’re in charge of the United States!

  2. Mark Says:

    We should try getting back to basics…..get a common sensed Surveyor in the White House…..Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln….all Surveyors…While indeed some lawyers are excellent speakers and compelling arguers, most of it is bullsh*t.

  3. MS Says:

    “We should try getting back to basics…..get a common sensed Surveyor in the White House…..Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln….all Surveyors…While indeed some lawyers are excellent speakers and compelling arguers, most of it is bullsh*t.”

    BTW both Lincoln and Jefferson were lawyers. All through history there has really been only two basic qualifications for heads of state/chief executives. That’s either a legal or military background. Everyone likes to believe that anyone can be president, but when election time rolls around the first thing people look at is the candidate’s resume and whether he/she is up to the job.

  4. mark altem Says:

    Check your records better for the legislative branch dealing a president requires a law background. Check with congress the ones who write and enforce the laws.

  5. Dee Wiecher Says:

    A correction is needed in case students read the comments. The executive branch enforces the laws, not the legislative branch.

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