General Question

Steve_A's avatar

Would getting a law degree help you in politics?

Asked by Steve_A (5120points) September 4th, 2010 from iPhone

I had someone tell me today “Man the world is being run by lawyers.”

Interesting I thought.

What do you think?
Would studying law help you that much is it who you know?

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

31 Answers

bob_'s avatar

Yes. See here.

Response moderated (Unhelpful)
talljasperman's avatar

Obama has a law degree… it certainly helped him

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Definitely. You need to know the law before you try to shape it.

SamIAm's avatar

my answer was completely legit…. so I’m re-posting:

it’s like a criminal having a law background… not saying that all politician are criminals but knowing the laws well so you can do what you want corrupt makes being a politician easier.

Ben_Dover's avatar

It couldn’t hurt, but it isn’t a prerequisite.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] For the record, the response above was removed because it appeared to be a joke. The wording of the second response makes it clear that it wasn’t intended to be.

BarnacleBill's avatar

While it’s not necessary to have a law degree, many do because politics is, at its core, about the rules by which we live, and those are the laws. The training for a lawyer requires learning how to think from multiple sides of an argument. People who generally approach politics without a law degree generally do so with a single-sided approach, representing a single view point, and not necessarily the constituency they represent (which does include people who don’t agree with them.)

Ben_Dover's avatar

Perhaps it would be better oif there were less lawyers in politics.

gorillapaws's avatar

@Ben_Dover on the face of it, that sentiment is cute and feels right. Ultimately, it amounts to saying something like: “perhaps it would be better if there were fewer engineers designing bridges, or mechanics inspecting airplanes, or doctors doing surgeries.” etc. Lawyers spend a lot of time studying law, the theory of law, ways in which the spirit of the law may not match the letter of the law etc. It would stand to reason that they would be the most skilled at crafting laws.

Also, keep in mind that not all lawyers are big corporate contract law guys, patent trolls, or ambulance chasers. There are a lot of lawyers that dedicate their lives to helping ordinary people.

Ron_C's avatar

Getting a law degree helps in politics, unfortunately. That is part of the problem with U.S. law too many lawyers and too many intentional loop holes.

I think there should be a project to put all laws in simple short language. We need to simplify the legal system, get rid of excess and redundant laws, and simplify the tax code.

Of course many lawyers would be out of business and people would end up understanding the law which would also put private prisons out of business. We can’t have that, can we?

perspicacious's avatar

Yes, it’s a degree than can help you out in many career paths.

Ben_Dover's avatar


Actually, assuming a lawyer makes a better politician based on the idea that engineers and mechanics are better bridge-builders and repairmen or doctors make better surgeons is completely erroneous.
These comparisons are oxymorons.
It doesn’t take a lawyer to propose laws and enact legislation.
It does take a doctor to transplant a kidney.
It doesn’t take a lawyer to uphold the constitution.
It does take an engineer to build a skyscraper.

And on and on…

gorillapaws's avatar

@Ron_C the problem with simple laws is that they then become open to the interpretation of individual judges, which means there’s much less consistency from case-to-case which results in ambiguity of the law. By being more technical and descriptive, it closes down the opportunities for ambiguity and interpretation.

@Ben_Dover first, your examples aren’t oxymorons. Second they don’t prove that my analogy is “erroneous” at all. I could probably design a shitty skyscraper without an engineering degree, I also think the lay person could probably craft legislation that has many unforeseen consequences. A lawyer is trained to see where the cracks might be, and to prevent them if they’re trying to make something air-tight.

I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve taken some undergraduate law classes taught by practicing lawyers and learned a ton. A lot of things that seem common sense really aren’t. For example, what if you have a law that says stealing anything valued over $1,000 is a felony. Nice, simple, easy to understand right?

1. What happens if someone steals a $5 lottery scratcher?
2. What if someone steals a $5 lottery scratcher that’s all ready been scratched and has won $5,000?
3. What if they stole a $5 lottery scratcher that hadn’t been scratched but it turns out after the fact it was a $5,000 winner?

Seemingly simple things can become complicated rather quickly. Lawyers are taught to think about these types of edge cases, to follow things down to their logical consequences, and to master logic and reason. I find all of these qualities infinitely more valuable in a person than say being a really successful businessman (as one example). Businessmen seem to excel at generating profits—often at the expense of other people. Not that all businessmen are bad, but the deeper philosophical implications of legislation often seem to slip past those who’ve not had such a rigorous education.

Jaxk's avatar


I’m sorry but all I can say is ‘what a load of crap’. Lawyers don’t plug loopholes they create and exploit them. Lawyers beget legalese. I’ve taken a few law classes myself and the legalese is designed to confuse people. The only way to understand the language is to take law classes (and a lot of them). It doesn’t need to be that way. By law we are expected to understand the laws (ignorance is no excuse). then we write the laws in a way that the average person has no clue what they say. Now that’s an oxymoron.

Go to small claims court where lawyers are not allowed. The judgements are quite clear and in most cases quite fair. Then go to civil court and listen to the lawyers. Quite a different scenario. It’s the lawyers that create a 3,000 page health care bill that is difficult to understand and leaves so much open to interpretation won’t know for decades what’s really in it. Being a lawyer does automatically endow common sense, in fact it virtually precludes it.

Last point. Being a lawyer does not mean your any better or worse than anybody else but it does mean your more sympathetic to lawyers. Just as another profession. And if there is any hope of becoming a slightly less litigious nation, we won’t get there by electing more lawyers. You shouldn’t need to hire a lawyer to get fair treatment on virtually any issue but you do. Lawyers saw to that. The ‘Trial Lawyers’ are one of the most influential lobbies in Washington. That’s not an accident nor coincidence.

Jaxk's avatar

Thomas Jefferson said, “If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour? ”

From Ron Paul’s website.

crazyivan's avatar

@Gorillapaws – I’m impressed by the crafting of your argument, though I’m not impressed by the argument itself. First of all, being a divorce lawyer isn’t going to help you much if you are sitting on the house ways and means committee any more than being an architect would. The majority of politicians don’t actually “craft” laws and those that do (even the lawyers) run these through comittees of lawyers before proposal.

A politician is, foremost, a representative of the people, not a law maker.

Jaxk's avatar

Quick response to your Lottery ticket issue. If the ticket turned out to be worth $5,000 then it’s a felony. You didn’t steal it in hopes that it would be worthless. It’s really quite simple as long as the lawyers don’t get involved and complicate it.

gorillapaws's avatar

@Jaxk “Lawyers don’t plug loopholes…” Many lawyers do plug loopholes when they design contracts and laws. If you’re a lawyer charged with drafting a prenuptial agreement, and you write it in such a way that the lawyers for the other side are able to find all kinds of loopholes in it so your client isn’t protected in the way he believes, then you could be potentially liable for malpractice. I agree that many lawyers also exploit them, but if you’re not trained to think of what they could be, or how a piece of legislation could be manipulated by your colleagues, then you will likely write legislation with more unintended loopholes, not less.

Do you have data to support that most judgments in small claims are judged “quite fair[ly]”? What evidence are you using to form that conclusion? I certainly would rather have laws that aren’t subject to a lot of judicial interpretation, because you can never really be sure if what you’re doing is illegal or not. This is worse than having laws that are more explicit, but perhaps a bit harder to read. It also opens the door even wider to cronyism between the judiciary and lawyers, to forge friendships that might create even more variability in the law from courtroom to courtroom.

I suspect one major reason the healthcare bill is 3k pages long is there is a lot of language trying to protect against health insurance company lawyers picking apart every detail looking for ways to weasel out of their obligations.

“Being a lawyer does automatically endow common sense, in fact it virtually precludes it.” I completely disagree with this point. Lawyers are exceptional at common sense. There’s certainly a “book knowledge” component to being a lawyer, but if you’ve ever looked at the questions on the LSAT, there’s a lot of basic “common sense” reasoning. Trial lawyers have to be capable of relating to the “ordinary citizen” jury through basic common sense arguments or else they will have a very difficult time winning cases for their clients.

I do think your last point is well made. The trial lawyers do seem to hold a disproportionate amount of pull in the legislature. I think this could partly be resolved with stricter lobbying regulations as opposed to having fewer politicians with rigorous educational backgrounds.

What professions do you think would be better preparation for a career as a politician?

@crazyivan I agree that many aspects of being a divorce lawyer probably wouldn’t necessarily make one a good politician. But in order to pass the Bar exam you have to know a hell-of-a-lot about law in general, not just your particular niche. This means all lawyers do have a common set of problem-solving and reasoning skills which I believe to be a very valuable asset. Also, just because you’re a lawyer, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good politician, but I do think it helps more than most professions.

@Jaxk It’s arguable that you didn’t steal the lotto ticket with the expectations of winning the grand prize either (which is incredibly unlikely). Perhaps you stole the lotto ticket with the hopes of winning $200 to make your rent payment or something. Also that would mean that the actual punishment for this person would depend on the randomness of what’s on the actual ticket, and not necessarily the intent of the person committing the crime (that may be the right way to go, but I don’t think it’s at all a “simple” issue).

There’s millions of these types of edge-case scenarios though. What if you’re in one state that has the death penalty and shoot-and-kill someone across the state lines that doesn’t have the death penalty. In which state should you be tried? These weird situations can and do occur all of the time (criminals will often intentionally exploit a perceived loophole as well).

“It’s really quite simple as long as the lawyers don’t get involved and complicate it.” Unless you think we should remove all lawyers from the judicial process, there will be lawyers complicating thing. That’s just the reality of the situation. So if you want to write bills without lawyers combing through to find the vulnerabilities, you can’t naively assume that the people and companies that have a stake in the outcome won’t hire lawyers to try to rip it apart after it’s passed.

Jaxk's avatar


Let me address the lottery ticket first. You can’t possibly be insinuating that the intent of the perpetrator is the deciding factor. If I steal your watch and it turns out to be a $10,000 Cartier, my defense of course would be that I thought it was a $25 knockoff. Heck, you can buy one from any street vendor in NY. This is exactly how we get totally incomprehensible laws and interpretations from the lawyers. When they try to cover every possible contingency, they leave open for interpretation every contingency they didn’t specifically cover. That’s exactly what happens with the prenups. If we said what ‘What I had prior to the marriage, I retain after the divorce’ it would be clear. But once we start specifying everything I have and every contingency, the lawyer on the other side tries to find anything not specified or accounted for specifically. By specifying one thing and not another it leaves loopholes and that’s what the lawyers want and get paid astronomical fees to find.

The lawyers are not good at common sense arguments but rather good at confusing the issue. That’s the whole point. If you can get a jury confused about what the law says or about how the events took place, then you have a chance to get them believe your interpretation of the events. It’s not about clarity, it’s about confusing the issues. They do that in their arguments, their interpretations, and their writings. The language they use is a tool in doing that.

We have more lawyers per capita than any other country. And we have more lawyers in Congress than any other country. And of course our laws are more confusing than any other country. There was a story we used to tell when I was doing management training. When the Japanese legislated air pollution standards, the Japanese hired 10,000 engineers to address the problem. When the USA legislated similar air pollution standards, we hired 10,000 lawyers. The story while not completely accurate was intended to show the difference in our long range and financial strategies. The truth is we needed the lawyers just to interpret the legislation to find out what had to be done. We needed the lawyers regardless of our financial or long range strategies because we over complicate our legislation.

As for the small claims court argument, the experience is my own. I’ve been there several times listened to all the cases before and after my own. The judgement assessment is my own but I stand by it. I would take my chances in a small claims court anytime. In the civil court, it costs a fortune and the outcome is always risky. More dependant on the lawyer than the issue. It’s designed that way by the lawyers. Go figure.

Jaxk's avatar

Again I’m sorry I didn’t address your shooting incident. You’re trying to think like a lawyer. The case is tried in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed. Where the guy was shot. If he was in a state with the death penalty that’s where he’s tried. If it was not a death penalty state, you can’t move it simply because you want the guy to get a stiffer penalty. I don’t doubt a lawyer would try this strategy (especially the prosecutors we have today) but common sense won’t allow it. By firing his gun, no law was broken. By hitting a person with that shot, the law was broken. It’s not difficult if you don’t try to confuse.

gorillapaws's avatar

@Jaxk the watch example is different from the lottery example because a lottery ticket has a known chance of winning (the odds are printed on the ticket). Whenever I buy a lotto ticket (which I’ve done maybe only 5 times in my life) I assume I’m almost certainly going to loose, but there’s a bit of fun to be had scratching the boxes, and I know that my losses go to the state to help build schools and such. I’m not saying the standard SHOULD be the intent of the criminal (and if I remember correctly, it’s based entirely on the actual value of the item), but the bigger point is that simple laws often end up having very complicated conditions surrounding them when put into practice—I don’t think that case is as simple as you seem to believe it is.

I don’t think laws are written that specify every possible contingency as you say, but are designed to be as accessible as possible while trying to avoid potential pitfalls. I suspect this is actually a very difficult thing to do.

“The lawyers are not good at common sense arguments but rather good at confusing the issue” You have to realize that in every case there is one lawyer trying to make things as messy as possible, but on the other side of the aisle, there’s another one trying to untangle it and make it clear. Good lawyers are capable of both skills.

The rest of your post seems primarily targeted at the litigious culture in the US. I completely agree with your sentiment. With regards to the Japan vs. US cultures, I believe that litigation is viewed very differently in the East as it is in the West. For every lawyer out there, there are many clients who are hiring them. Ultimately, the problem is that we have powerful people who are willing to bend the legal system to “buy” justice. I don’t believe this occurs on the same level in countries like Japan where such behavior is (rightly) viewed as dishonorable and shameful.

Having said all that, I’m not sure that having people in office who are less capable of anticipating what the attack lawyers from corporations, or other powerful people/groups that can afford to hire them will produce better results. It’s like fighting a war where the enemy is using dirty tactics. You don’t want a general who is unfamiliar with the tricks the enemy might be using simply because they’re dirty. You want a general who can anticipate what they’re doing and create his battle plans using this knowledge. It would be foolhardy to assume that just because you decide to appoint a general that’s ignorant of the enemy’s tactics, the enemy will then decide to fight fairly. In other words, electing non-lawyers to congress will not make corporations any less litigious or abusive.

WIth the murder case, it really isn’t so simple because the crime of 1st degree murder is based around the intent of the murder to willfully take the other person’s life. That decision occurred in the state he was standing in at the instant he pulled the trigger. I’m not saying which way it should go, I’m sure it’s all ready been figured out, but the point is that these things are complicated, and that seemingly simple laws can and do become complicated rather quickly.

Also, I’m still curious about which professions you think would make a better alternative to lawyers. I don’t believe all politicians should be lawyers, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Ron_C's avatar

@gorillapaws I don’t believe that the jargon is necessary. For instance make a law, “Don’t steal”. Then all you need is to condition the punishment to the offence. If your theft causes a death, like when Madoff stole billions from pension funds that kept people alive, the the ultimate punishment should be death for the perpetrator.

What you steal isn’t as important as the affect of the theft, that’s why they shot horse thieves because the result was often death to the owner. I think we could clear volumes if the punish was scaled on the effect caused by the crime.

Of course there would be a number of derivative traders on death row, that’s a plus too.

Jaxk's avatar

I’ll address your last question first since I’ve missed it previously. A good mix of professions would be much more preferable to the lopsided lawyer majority we have. At present we have some from a variety of vocations but they are overwhelmed by the lawyers. And the writing of legislation is perpetuated by the lawyers. We continue to believe that since the laws have gotten so complex that only a lawyer can understand them that we need lawyers to craft the legislation to fix them. Merely a self fulfilling prophecy.

As for lawyers trying to confuse or untangle these issues, think about this. One of the jobs of the judge, is to explain to the jury what the law means. Surely that should not be necessary or at least merely perfunctory. In reality it is essential since the law is not clear. Who do you suppose created that situation? The lawyers. Getting back to clear, concise laws would not be easy since we’ve perpetuated this condition for so long but wouldn’t it be nice to know what is legal and what is not? I find it some what amusing that if you call the IRS to get an answer on a tax issue, they are not responsible for bad advice. The burden is on the tax payer even though the tax code is virtually undecipherable. Hell, even Geithner couldn’t figure it out and he’s now the head of the IRS.

You are right that murder is defined by the intent. But it doesn’t matter where you made the decision, only that you made the decision.

The punishment used to be decided by the judge. There were guidelines but circumstances determined the punishment as viewed by the judge. We are moving rapidly away from this by imposing minimum sentences. Maybe the judges made some mistakes but without any judgement call by them we are under punishing some and over punishing others. There is no longer any rhyme or reason to the punishment. We’ve decided to put that into the hands of the prosecutor by allowing them to pile on charges ad infinitum. And of course all those charges are so ambiguous that they can be applied to almost anyone or any charge. A quick example.

My wife sat on a jury where a guy held up a couple at knife point. During the episode the penetrator told the couple to sit and and not move while he rifled through the woman’s purse. He was charged with a plethora of crimes, one of which was ‘false imprisonment’. Now I have no sympathy for this guy but let’s be reasonable. When they created the law against armed robbery, they had to assume that the victim would not be allowed to just walk away. It is part of that crime. Not a separate crime. Lawyers create complications that would not otherwise exist. And we let them instead of using common sense to solve the problem.

The guy was convicted including false imprisonment by the way.

crazyivan's avatar

@ Gorilla Paws. I apologize. I think Ron C has inadvertently made your point and I gracefully withdraw.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Ron_C Punishments should only be scaled on effects if the crime was committed for the purpose of creating those effects. Stealing a horse may be for its monetary value, or it may be maliciously wanting the owner to die a slow death from exhaustion. What about the example above, where a mother steals a loaf of bread for a starving child? Surely you must balance the effect of the loss against the effect of the gain. What if the first food she came across was a prime cut of Wagyu Beef?

The jargon is necessary, because colloquial terms go through an evolution of meanings. For example, the word ‘gentleman’ used to mean a man of high standing and class, but now it can be used for any man, and has the connotation of a toilet sign. Legal terms are more specific, and since they are not used by the general population their meanings do not change over time as rapidly or without the impact of common law.

I should add that the death penalty is barbaric, and should have no place in a civilised society, but that is another discussion for another time.

crazyivan's avatar

While I don’t think it directly applies to the question, I think it’s worth noting at this point that the majority of law makers are not lawyers and do not hold law degrees. The most recent stats I could find suggest that 56 senators have law degrees and 49 were practicing lawyers before holding office. While that constitutes a majority in the senate, only 25%-35% of congressmen are or were lawyers.

That being said, clearly getting a law degree will help in politics, though it is hardly a prerequisite.

Ron_C's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh I mostly in agreement concerning the death penalty unless the crime was committed against me. Of course that is why it should be eliminated of severely limited.
The nice thing about a simple language form of law is that its meaning is not likely to change over time. In addition, it would have case law to back it up.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@Ron_C I agree on the death penalty. If a serious crime was committed against me, I would pursue revenge, but that does not make it just to do so. I want to see it banned, in part because victims are the worst people to make decisions of this nature.

I disagree on language though. If you look back through Shakespeare, many of the words he uses that we don’t are quite simple, but the more complex words have stayed the same because they have a more specific meaning to begin with.

Jaxk's avatar


You may have a point. The Supreme court seems to think the constitution says something different every few years.

bendonahower's avatar

Yes but what is the return on investment?

There are a lot of students in law school right now. Frankly, they are becoming a dime a dozen.

Many elected officials are lawyers but you certainly don’t have to be.

A lot of their work also revolved around helping constituents with problems as well. So it’s arguable that being a social worker or working at a call center would provide some great experience for this component of an elected officials job.

Likewise, you can develop a legal skillset without going to law school. Volunteer or work for an issue advocacy group and tell them that you have an interested in legislation. Start learning about the legislation that they are recommending to their elected officials. Request a meeting with your elected official to talk about said legislation and ask for his or her support.

Personally, I think you’re best off to get into the trenches and try to affect change. You might even find that you hate it and that’s the last thing you want to do is pursue a political career. Much better to find out by getting your hands dirty than going 100k into debt.

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