The ideology of American lawyers has been a persistent source of discussion and debate. Two obstacles, however, have prevented this topic from being systematically studied: the sheer number of attorneys in the United States and the need for a methodology that makes comparing the ideology of specific individuals possible. In this paper, we present a comprehensive mapping of lawyers’ ideologies that has overcome these hurdles. We use a new dataset that links the largest database of political ideology with the largest database of lawyers’ identities to complete the most extensive analysis of the political ideology of American lawyers ever conducted.
Reflecting on the role of lawyers in the early American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville famously wrote, “[i]n America there are no nobles or men of letters, and the people is apt to mistrust the wealthy; lawyers consequently form the highest political class, and the most cultivated circle of society” (de Tocqueville 1840, 514). Noting their political influence, he further observed that, “[i]f I were asked where I place the American aristocracy, I should reply without hesitation that it is not composed of the rich, who are united together by no common tie, but that it occupies the judicial bench and the bar.”
Nearly two centuries later, de Tocqueville’s observations have largely remained accurate (Posner 2009). In the 113th Congress, 156 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 55 out of the 100 Senators elected were lawyers (Manning 2014). Moreover, 25 out of 43 Presidents have been lawyers (Slater 2008). Turning to state executive positions, 24 out of the current 50 state governors have law degrees. In addition being heavily overrepresented in elected branches of government, lawyers have the privilege of exclusively occupying an entire branch of government. All state high court justices are former lawyers, and 32 states explicitly require that their high court justices be former lawyers (Barton 2014, 30). All judges currently serving on the federal courts are lawyers, as are all nine justices sitting on the Supreme Court.
The influence of the nation’s bar extends from elected politics into policy making and beyond. For example, by some counts, 8 percent of the nation’s lawyers work in government (American Bar Association 2012). Lawyers are also heavily overrepresented among Fortune 500 CEOs and CFOs (Wecker 2012). Within academia, law schools occupy the “crown jewel” positions at universities such as Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, and UCLA, with large law faculty and revenue generating streams (Winterhalter 2013).
Moreover, the American Bar Association has nearly 400,000 members, making it one of the largest advocacy organizations in the country—behind only the American Association for the Advancement of Science in terms of total number of members (American Bar Association 2015). The ABA is also one of the largest and most powerful lobbying groups in the United States.
Given the importance of lawyers in American public life, the ideologies of lawyers is a constant a source of discussion and debate among both academics and journalists. For example, commentators often discuss whether law firms are liberal or conservative based on the reputations of a few prominent partners, or—in the most comprehensive analysis prior to this study of the ideology of law firms—based on donations to two candidates in a single election (Muller 2013). Similarly, the ideologies of law schools have been examined using proxies like the breakdown of judges that law students clerk for after graduation (Roeder 2014). As these examples illustrate, the evidence used to study the ideology of American lawyers has mostly been anecdotal or incomplete, and systematic scholarship has remained elusive. These analyses have remained limited for two reasons. The first reason is that, given the massive number of attorneys in the United States, any study of the legal profession as a whole is a daunting task. With more than 1.1 million law school graduates in America (Brown 2013), conducting a compressive analysis of even simple data—addresses, law school attended, practice area, etc.—has been beyond the reach of even sophisticated quantitative scholars. The second reason is methodological: a systematic analysis of the legal profession requires developing a way to place individuals on a single, easily comparable ideological dimension.
We address both of these issues by relying on a new dataset that links the most comprehensive database of political ideology with the most comprehensive database of lawyers’ identities. Our data on ideological leanings is from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME). The DIME data leverages the vast number of federal campaign contributions made by individuals. By scaling not just whom the contributions were made to, but also by what amount, the DIME data can be used to assess an individual’s ideological leaning. Our data on the identity of American lawyers is from the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory. Martindale-Hubbell provides the “most comprehensive database of lawyers in the country.” By linking the DIME data with the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, we therefore have access to the largest and most comprehensive dataset ever amassed on the ideological leanings of the legal profession.
We use this combined data to explore the ideology of American lawyers in five ways. First, we tackle the question of the ideological leanings of the legal profession taken as a whole. Second, we consider the relationship between geography and the ideology of lawyers. Third, we examine the relationship between lawyers’ educational backgrounds and ideology. Fourth, we explore how ideology varies across firms and within firms. Fifth, we look at the ideologies of lawyers by practice area.
We proceed in this article as follows. In PART I, we motivate our inquiry by expanding on our observations about the importance of the bar and by discussing existing studies that examine its ideological positioning. PART II begins the discussion of the two datasets that we use in the analysis, which are (1) the DIME database of campaign contributions for ideological data and (2) the Martindale-Hubbell legal directory. This section is more technical and explains how the two databases were linked with each other, as well as possible sources of bias. In PART III, we present our basic findings regarding the overall ideological distribution of attorneys. In the following sections, we disaggregate the legal profession further. PART IV disaggregates the ideology of lawyers by their geographic location. PART V analyzes the distribution of lawyers’ ideology by their educational experience. PART VI presents the ideology of lawyers by the law firms where they work. PART VII explores the ideology of lawyers by their practice area.