By Michelle Bedoya Barnett, JBA president
By the time this article is published, we should (but may not) know who won the 2020 presidential election.
I have been thinking a lot about division that exists in our country today and what qualifications and skills make a good president.
Since 1789, nearly every American election has included a candidate who attended law school, practiced law as an attorney, or both. This year’s election is no exception.
The journey from law student, to lawyer, to politician, to presidential candidate is a familiar one. More than half of this country’s presidents practiced law before becoming commander in chief.
Twenty-six of our nation’s 45 chief executives practiced law in some capacity before their inauguration. Three more – Teddy Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon Johnson – were law school dropouts. Truman didn’t graduate from college. At the time, you could attend law school right out of high school.
Legal experience remains an asset for those seeking to lead the free world. While the legal profession and the presidency have changed exponentially in the past 200 years, the correlation between the two has not.
There certainly are other professions that provide important skills such as business, health care and science. My personal favorite, President Ronald Reagan, was an actor.
What makes the legal profession conducive to achieving the most notable office in the country?
Politics and law are inextricably linked. Understanding the law means understanding policy, history and governmental functions. Many high-ranking government legal positions are bound tightly to the world of politics for better or worse.
Moreover, a law degree and legal career open doors to pursuing politics by creating opportunities to strengthen community relationships and involvement and advancing skills such as public speaking, networking and crisis management.
The skills required to practice law far exceed an educational pedigree or social aptitude. Being an exceptional lawyer, like being an exceptional president, requires strength of character, leadership ability, eloquence and unwavering fortitude in the face of adversity and stress.
So many of the skills that enable successful lawyers to command a courtroom or a boardroom are integral to commanding a country and its constituents.
Careers in the law or politics allow people to pursue public service and strive to implement justice and equality. Law and politics are platforms for actualizing tangible societal change.
What a legal career most prepares a future politician for is resolving issues, mediating disputes and bettering their community.
Like the presidency, and many other important leadership positions, the role of an attorney is accompanied by great responsibility and the ability to improve the lives of others.
One of the most famous lawyers-turned-presidents, Abraham Lincoln, said, “as a peacemaker, the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man.”
Lawyers, through their unique knowledge and ability, have the opportunity and responsibility to be good people.
Regardless of the outcome of this election, we as lawyers should work together to be peacemakers and to bring unity among people in our country.
Christopher Scalia, son of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, said it best when he described the relationship between his father and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
“They held very strong, very different views. They wrote opinions that disagreed with each other’s opinions, and they didn’t pull any punches in those opinions, but they never let those strong, deeply held beliefs get in the way of their friendship. They didn’t compromise those beliefs for each other, but they didn’t let it disrupt their relationship.”
Let’s be sure to use this example and move forward together as a united country, and as good people, for the greater good.
Michelle Bedoya Barnett is a founding partner of Alexander DeGance Barnett, focusing on labor and employment law.