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I’ll never forget the shock of disillusionment I felt the first time I read an international treaty. What I had imagined as august documents of war and peace were just … contracts. Opaque, turgid, stilted contracts, just like the ones I review (and sometimes write). You might have a similar reaction to the capsule histories in America’s Lawyer-Presidents: From Law Office to Oval Office. In their legal careers, these leaders did the same routine, often mind-numbingly boring tasks that lawyers do every day. Andrew Jackson collected debts, Calvin Coolidge drafted wills, and Gerald Ford handled title conveyancing. A lavishly illustrated, well-designed coffee-table book, America’s Lawyer-Presidents features essays on each attorney who has held our nation’s highest office. Various academic experts deliver the profiles, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor gives the foreword, and Stanford Law School’s Lawrence Friedman weighs in with brief overviews of American legal history. They all make the same point: Being a lawyer profoundly shaped the political careers of this group of presidents. America’s Lawyer-Presidents is also full of statistics. So far, 25 of 43 Oval Office inhabitants have been attorneys, including three-quarters of all those elected through 1900. (The proportion fell to 39 percent in the twentieth century.) Only seven lawyer-presidents went to law school; most practiced in the era before the emergence of graduate legal education. Most of our lawyer-presidents had garden-variety general practices, and they often grappled with the soul-killing drudgery that has always bedeviled the profession. Take John Adams, for example, the first attorney to occupy the presidency. He initially became a teacher because he wanted to avoid a life “fumbling and raking amidst the rubbish of Writs, indightments, Pleas, ejectments, enfiefed, illatebration and 1,000 other lignum vitae words,” he later recalled. But Adams’s interest in political philosophy won out, and he started reading law in Boston in 1758. He studied under Jeremiah Gridley, the dean of the Massachusetts colony’s bar, who famously counseled Adams to “pursue the Study of Law rather than the Gain of it.” And so he did: Adams published numerous pamphlets that helped establish the underpinnings of the Declaration of Independence. He also helped draft the Massachusetts constitution (a model for the Bill of Rights) and wrote the seminal Thoughts on Government. Adams managed to gain from the law as well, eventually becoming the leading trial lawyer in Massachusetts. While the extraordinary scope of Adams’s career makes him the preeminent lawyer-president, he’s had formidable competition. Lincoln, in notes for a law lecture from the 1850s, delivered a superb combination of practical advice and moral vision. “The leading rule for the lawyer is diligence,” Lincoln wrote. “Leave nothing for to-morrow, which can be done to-day. … When you bring a common-law suit, if you have the facts for doing so, write the declaration at once.” But even more important: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise when you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser, in fees, expenses and waste of time.” Lincoln and Adams exemplify the overall thesis of America’s Lawyer-Presidents: that the study and practice of law has influenced the political lives, and the presidencies, of our lawyer-presidents. But like the old nostrum that learning Latin was essential to the development of a gentleperson, this idea seems to mistake the means for the ends. In any case, it’s both entertaining and instructive to see how the mundane realities of a legal career interacted with the social and political ambitions of so many of America’s leaders. Knowing how the politico-legal sausage gets made, so to speak, may diminish your appetite but improve your taste. After all, come November, the percentage of lawyer-presidents elected in the twenty-first century to date might turn out to be 100 percent (John Kerry, Boston College Law School). Michael Stern, a former journalist and English professor, is the head of Cooley Godward’s technology transactions group. A longer version of this article originally appeared in The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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