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Seven Presidents Who Were Lawyers

  • by Ross Rinehart
  • Feb 18, 2019
  • Law School, Legal Life

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Today — to commemorate it being the third Monday of February, the date on which we honor George Washington’s birthday, colloquially known as President’s Day and popularly understood as a federal holiday that you may or may not get off from work or class — we’re going to take a look at some of the presidents who were lawyers before being elected.

And there have been a lot of presidents who were lawyers; twenty-six of the forty-five presidents have practiced law at some point in their careers. Lawyer is the most common occupation among the U.S. presidents. You could almost say that when we select presidents, lawyers take precedence (sorry). In fact, being a lawyer — or else a military officer or elected public official — is practically a prerequisite to becoming president (your opinion of the only president to not hold any of those jobs prior to his presidency — the current president — probably says a lot about whether you think these jobs should be prereqs for the office).

At any rate, over half of all the presidents have gone through experiences at least somewhat similar to your experiences taking the LSAT and applying to law school (though, given that Barack Obama, the U.S. president who attended law school most recently, earned his J.D. in 1991, and the modern LSAT take form until 1991, none has had your exact experiences prepping for this LSAT). And hey, assuming that thirty years from now the office isn’t being held indefinitely by Chairman Baron Trump, it’s totally possible that some people currently studying for the LSAT or applying to law school will someday become president.

So, to honor the most common pathway to the presidency, let’s highlight some notable facts about the legal careers of seven presidents.

Andrew Jackson

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Source: history.com

History hasn’t been kind to the seventh president of the United States — deservingly so — but Andrew Jackson was a very prominent Southern attorney in his day. That is despite being functionally illiterate, according to many. It’s popularly, though probably apocryphally, claimed that the term “OK” comes from the shorthand Andrew Jackson used to sign off on bills. OK standing, of course, for “all correct.”

Martin Van Buren

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Source: history.com

Martin Van Buren became a lawyer and the eighth president of the United States despite English being his second language — he’s the only ESL president, in fact. He was also a tiny little man dubbed “Little Van” and was almost too shabby a dresser to become an attorney. You could say he wasn’t fit for the job [Ed. Note: Or, you could not]. Oh, and he married his cousin, becoming the first, but not the last, president to do so.

John Tyler

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Source: history.com

Despite looking like he worked for the Empire, John Tyler could apparently Get. It. He had fifteen kids with two wives — more kids than any other president by a margin of, like, a broodful of kids. He was accidentally admitted to the Virginia bar when he was nineteen, after the judge forgot to ask his age. He was later accidentally named the tenth president of the United States, after William Henry Harrison gave a two-hour inauguration speech in the freezing rain and promptly died of pneumonia.

Abraham Lincoln

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Source: history.com

Despite being arguably the most successful lawyer and the most successful president on this list, Abraham Lincoln had a lot of setbacks during his career. Before becoming president, he grew up dirt poor in Illinois; lost his mother at age nine from something called “milk sickness”; worked at a failed general store; lost an election to become a state legislator — twice; couldn’t get into law school so taught himself the law using the impossibly dry and impenetrable Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England; ran another failed general store; and failed to earn a seat on the U.S. Senate in his two attempts to do so. What I’m trying to say is, don’t let a low practice exam score get you down.

William Howard Taft

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Source: history.com

Lafty Tafty is probably the most lawyer of all the presidents — and that’s not even a joke about his prodigious size. He was a prominent Ohio attorney in his twenties, was appointed to the Superior Court of Cincinnati by twenty-nine, was considered for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court at thirty-two, was instead made Solicitor General, and then earned a lifetime appointment to the Sixth Circuit by thirty-five. After a brief sojourn as a one-term president, he was nominated by Warren G. Harding to be the tenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Prototypical gunner.

Harry S Truman

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Source: biography.com

He was only technically a lawyer — he never practiced, but he did earn an honorary license to practice law posthumously (as in, he was awarded the license posthumously — not that he can practice law posthumously, as a ghost). Like many who take the LSAT once, he started down the legal path but quickly changed his mind. But I included him anyway because he’s the subject of my favorite presidential fact: the “S” in his name didn’t stand for anything. In a world historic flex, he just added it to his name because he felt like it. And that fact is appropriate to this post because — despite what anyone, up to and including representatives of LSAC, will tell you — the S in LSAT also doesn’t stand for anything. It’s true. [Ed. Note: It is not true]. Trust me [Ed. Note: Don’t trust him]. Look it up. [Ed. Note: Don’t bother].

Gerald Ford

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Source: history.com

The only president be elected neither vice president nor president (he was appointed to the vice presidency after elected veep Spiro Agnew was indicted for tax evasion, and was then appointed president after Richard Nixon resigned following the whole Watergate thing) had a pretty interesting life. Before becoming a Michigan lawyer, he had offers to play pro football for both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. And after becoming a lawyer, he became a snitch for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitoring of the Warren Commission. He was also the first president to be satirized on SNL, a proud tradition that continues to this day.

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So there you have it — the sometimes less-than-illustrious careers of seven of the twenty-six presidents who were attorneys. Going to law school to become president is maybe not the most practical reason to earn a J.D. — but, you know what, it’s better than getting an M.B.A. to become president, since only one president has one of those. In any case, let these President’s Day facts make plain that you can countenance a few setbacks, peculiarities, and outright failures as you chart your path to the courtroom or the White House.

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